She was heavy. Her naked body, decorated with a tiny purple tattoo on her right hip, expressed her 78 years. It was barely 7 am, and she’d already been at the gym for a few hours. She was getting ready for a shower.
We were discussing the advantages of being up uber early. This woman had worked up until three years ago. Now she had a bit more time, and she takes her health seriously. She’s not trying to get her twenty-something body back. She just wants her mobility, and her strength. That’s a very reasonable goal.
We had a lively discussion about yoga. Then we walked together- I headed to the toilet before I started my weights and she veered, barefoot, towards the exit to the gym.
“Um, you might want to rethink that decision,” I said, laughing. All she had on was a towel.
We giggled hysterically. I did that once at a Bally’s. I dressed in reverse order.
Neurologists say it’s good for the brain.
Apparently not good for short term memory. I pranced out onto the open floor with the headlights on full beams and not a damned thing above the waist.
Happily I caught sight of myself in the wall mirror.
Holy shit. Who is that damned fool woman walking around half-naked?
Look. I have an excuse. Four days ago I beaned myself on a brick wall in my friends’ foyer, a stunt that has left me decorated for New Year’s Eve party and with a headache in place well before the Morning After. If anyone should be expected to wander out onto the gym floor with the girls on display, I have a perfectly reasonable explanation.
Kindly. Some life hacks are just stupid.
Doing the Work
Out on the floor were the Usual Suspects. In this gym in Northern Spokane, Washington, the majority of the early risers are grey beards. The men are often retired Air Force (Fairchild AFB is in the city), and people like me, who love the area. Wives and widows and singles like me, too, making their slow and steady way around the gym. Many gather in small groups and discuss Cougar football or Zags basketball. But they’re here. Most work. On their own schedule, but they work. Sometimes a weight defeats them. They pick something smaller.
Younger people often try to continue with the heavier weight, which can tear muscles and ligaments, all for the sake of impressing people who aren’t watching you in the first place.
We old geezers understand nobody gives a crap. They don’t want to watch elderly people work out. It hits too close to home. There but for the Grace of God…and you will get there, buddy. You will.
I sure am.
“I Love Working With Older People”
Leisha (not her real name) is about 5'5". She’s fourth in the nation in power lifting. You’d never guess it. She’s compact, her muscles dense, and she’s funny and smart. And, fifty-five. You’d never guess that, either. She easily looks fifteen years younger, her energy level that of a teenager. Lots of folks assume power lifters are fat, gigantic, muscle bound. They don’t understand how much the sport is perfect form and technique born of endless years of practice.
We were discussing her various clients. Leisha prefers older folks, who, in her experience, have far more realistic expectations for results. They don’t demand to shed 100 lbs and have the body of a fashion model in three months. As they face down the double barrels of impending age and infirmity in a world that really doesn’t give a shit about them past a Certain Age (with the exception of some family, some friends, and rarely, a caregiver), they are trying to do the best they can to negotiate a deal with the inevitable. Of the time they have, they want enough strength to lift household items. Enough balance to manage the stairs. Enough energy to stay off the couch, and doing fun stuff, like dancing, and hiking, and playing with the grandkids and the dog. Once on the floor, they want to get back up easily and gracefully without pushing a damned button for help.
Leisha said that her younger clients were impatient, unrealistic, and demanding. They wanted instant results. I am constantly reminded of The Matrix, when all Neo’s character had to do was have a program downloaded into his body and WHAM, he was an MMA expert.
What a lovely idea. And, life hack enthusiasts aside, in the immortal words of Bill Paxton in Aliens, This can’t be happen’ man! This can’t be happenin’!
I admire Leisha, because not only is she maintaining her own extraordinary health, she is committing to the cadre of folks who need her the most: the elderly. The forgotten. But, in many ways, the most determined. Because, consider the options.
The gym has been my second home for these 45 years. Every January, a lemming-like flood of folks who would otherwise never be caught dead in Lycra cram in and shove the regulars out of the way in a breathless attempt to undo decades of damage. Men who traded their biceps for beer curls, women whose baby fat settled in for good and then some, no more winsome.
The mirrors which line the walls of this big gym can be harsh truth-tellers. For me, the loss of considerable, hard-won muscle on my deltoids because of rotator cuff surgery. Man, that hurts. However, that muscle happily pops right back with regular, consistent work. I’m already back up to forty men’s pushups, on my way to eighty. There is no pill, no hack that can deliver the size and cut to my arms that regular hard work can. Besides, if all I did was pay a surgeon to insert silicon “muscle,” imagine my shock and surprise when that “muscle” refuses to cooperate when I try to move the living room couch. For the uninitated, here you go (https://www.t-nation.com/living/big-plastic-muscles).
Pardon me, but I love being strong. I recently moved a love seat that had a rollout bed in it- read, heavy bastard- by myself into the garage. Okay, so my hardwood floor didn’t like it, but at 65, that’s not too shabby.
On either side of me this morning were men, most likely military, who were pushing weights. All well past fifty. Most with a solid, flat belly. Nobody with basketballs for biceps, which is the realm of the ‘roider, who will pay the price with his testicles and his sanity later in life. If not his life. These men simply do the work. We stand and sweat, watch our form, and slog through our sets, determined to push out just. One. More. Rep. Because it’s hard.
Sometimes we grin at each other, or nod. The serious ones are easy to spot. We’re the ones with the real muscle, and the strength to prove it.
The Flood Recedes
Every year in every gym that I have ever been in, worked for or studied, the January tsunami wave of hopefuls recedes by about mid-February. The nasty truth about lasting results lands right about the time our euphoria about the first ten pounds (invariably, water weight) sloughs off. Now we’re into it. We plateau. We sweat. We slog. We grieve. Damn, I gained that pound back. Damn, I still can’t fit into my jeans. Damn……
Most of us are unforgiving of our body’s unique process. While signs around the gym promise a lean body by such and such a date, they can’t deliver that to each and every one of us. Not if you’re an endomorph, for example (https://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/beginners-guide-to-body-types-ectomorph-mesomorph-endomorph/). There are endless factors at play.
Thirty years ago when a seriously starved Oprah proudly pulled her little cart on stage, chock — full of animal fat (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoVmIyzNn-8) I am quite sure she didn’t plan to expand again. She did. Thin is NOT her body type. That’s the year, by the way, that I also lost nearly 90 lbs. I didn’t get mine back. I am lean. But I work my ass off for it, because we former fatties want that body back (The Secret Life of Fat, Dr. Sylvia Tara). It is a lifelong, ongoing negotiation that changes every few years.
If you want this body, you can be guaranteed of endless hours of both gym time and dieting. Even then, there is absolutely no promise that you will see your six pack. That sound like fun to you? If you’re a fitness model, this is your life. The rest of us, work. We do the best we can with the body we have. If we’re smart, we begin where we are, have a good laugh at the inevitable carnage we committed over the years, and see to make peace with both the time and the body we have left.
What so many of us, including my naked friend this morning, want to accomplish, is to do what it takes to enjoy life until life leaves us. It will. That is the great inevitable. Between now and then, having a functionally fit body is a very reasonable goal. That means letting go of the ridiculous dream of perfection, and finding what we love to do enough so that we will indeed do it regularly.
January first is just a few days away. The flood is coming. If you’re among those who are donning your gym gear or sneakers for the first time in a very long time, perhaps you might consider the following:
- Hire a trainer who knows something about the older body. There are trainers of a Certain Age who have first-hand experience, and it helps to have guidance from someone who can relate.
- Temper your expectations. Refrain from cutting a photo of some airbrushed fitness model (who doesn’t look like that photo anyway) and expecting to look like that. Ever. Not even close. You are seeking to be a healthier version of you. That’s doable. Gaston in Beauty and the Beast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuJTqmpBnI0, um, NO.
- Be patient. Whether you are starting a gym routine, swimming, jogging or anything else, give your body time to get the message that it’s expected to work again. It will get the message all right. And after your body is done reminding you that it’s been a long damned time, buddy, it will indeed get right to work.
- Above all, recognize that you and I are not our bodies. It’s just a vehicle. We will decline. We will fall apart. We will die. We each have a due date, and Mama Nature always gets what is owed Her. What is negotiable- unique to each of us- is the quality of that time we have. When we care for ourselves with respect, the body allows us to continue to live, learn, and above all, love until we are off to the next Great Adventure.
- I’m planning to come back as an Australian Blue Heeler. How about you?