Photography by Amie Vanderford
Personal trainer Donna Hughes
When 66-year-old Carol Schlicksup first injured herself five years ago, she wasn’t convinced she’d ever be back to normal. A licensed psychotherapist, Schlicksup took a fall down several stairs at her office and wound up breaking her knee. The accident meant having to take six months of sick leave and hobbling around in a cast that stretched from ankle to hip.
Schlicksup was demoralized. But since she’s single, she knew she would need to regain mobility in order to maintain her independent lifestyle. Once the cast came off, she decided to start exercising and through friends found personal trainer Donna Hughes.
Hughes has been into fitness much of her life, but got serious about personal training 10 years ago. She converted several rooms on the second floor of her Germantown home into a gym, where exercise machines, balls, and kettlebell weights reside. Her trim, athletic build belies her age of 62, though it serves to motivate her clientele, many of whom are women 55 and older.
Before Schlicksup started weight training with Hughes, she had gone through physical therapy as part of her rehabilitation from surgery, but she couldn’t do cardiovascular workouts on a stationary bike because she couldn’t bend her knee. “I was a mess when I first came in to see Donna,” she admits.
So Hughes started Schlicksup off slowly, doing small repetitions of exercises and weights to build up her overall strength and endurance. As their workouts progressed, “I grew to trust Donna, even when she said, ‘You can use your knee.’ I never thought in a million years that I’d be able to do knee bends of any kind,” Schlicksup admits. Yet when I pay her a visit during one of her workout sessions in June, she demonstrates the various lifts she can do hefting kettlebells, a baseball-sized weight with a handle on top, swinging the weight between her knees and bending into a squatting position with ease.
“I don’t get out of breath as fast going up stairs at the office, I’ve lost weight and inches. I also wear a smaller size — that’s nice — and I stand straighter. I like to say I’ve only gotten better as I’ve gotten older,” says Schlicksup. She admits aging “is a little scary, since we don’t know what’s going to happen, but taking care of yourself is so important. It keeps your mind sharp.”
“We can turn the clock back a lot. And I mean a lot.” -Donna Hughes
“We can turn the clock back a lot. And I mean a lot,” says Hughes with emphasis. She sees the positive results exercise can bring. Often when new clients first arrive at her studio, they can’t readily manage some of life’s simpler daily tasks. Activities such as getting up off the floor, climbing stairs, or hefting grandchildren can bring achy muscles and shortness of breath. But with regular exercise and weight training, such tasks become easier. “And if you add eating healthy, you can totally change your life,” she says.
Another client, Colleen Brown, demonstrates a squat she does with the kettlebell. At 73, she lowers herself into a full sitting squat position. She steadily rises before telling me that seeing Donna as a personal trainer has helped her in other ways as well. “I was losing hair, and was fatigued. I thought it was age, but I got with Donna and discovered I had hypothyroidism. Now, I’m feeling better and am so proud of my hair.”
Once she finishes her hourlong workout, Brown walks over to the cool-down room, lies on the floor, and places her legs onto a Chi machine, a small device that holds the ankles in place while gently swaying the legs back and forth from the hips. Invented by a Japanese scientist, it’s used to improve the flow of oxygen to the body. Brown attributes much of her improved well-being to her exercise regime. The 72-year-old retired minister has been working out for the past year.
“Now I’m able to get up and down off of the floor easily, I can touch my toes, and I can get my arm around the back of my head. I also have more strength in my shoulders,” she says. Since she began exercising regularly and making changes in her eating habits, she’s also lost 18 pounds and is sleeping better at night. “Donna’s not only a great trainer but a good coach,” says Brown.
Keeping aging at bay
As we age, our bodies naturally lose muscle tissue, about half a pound a year on average. But a recent study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise concludes that strength training can actually reverse age-related muscle loss. The study was conducted with 1,328 adults ages 50 to 90. Over a 20-week period, study participants did regular strength training and, on average, gained 2.5 pounds of lean muscle mass. What this and other studies conclude is what active older people like Schlicksup and Brown are discovering: Regular exercise and strength training can be your ticket to healthier aging.
“People can do more than they think they can,” barring underlying heart or bone problems, says Mark D. Peterson, an exercise physiologist with the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author, who was quoted in a story published by AARP.
Such observations are echoed by registered nurse Molly Dyer, manager of the cardiac rehabilitation unit at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis. “Strength training and weight-bearing exercises can help with bone density and help to improve your flexibility, balance, and coordination.” As we age, “There are certain physiological changes that occur, but exercise can slow the progression of a lot of those things,” says Dyer. Though patients often become leery once they’ve experienced a serious health issue (and she recommends always consulting with your doctor before starting an exercise program), “if people choose to exercise with a friend or group, they feel better, and often, they can do more. And being able to do more boosts your level of confidence.”
Not only does strength training build confidence, it also reduces the risk of osteoporosis and diabetes while improving brain power.
“Lots of people think of exercise as extending the quantity of life, but really it’s about quality of life. In addition to losing muscle, as you age you have less energy and tend to move less, and so that makes you want to do less.”
Exercise starting today
The good news about starting to exercise is that it benefits you at any age when done properly. “As you age, your metabolism slows,” adds personal trainer Mike Ross-Spang, owner of Healthy Habits Personal Fitness Programs. “Lots of people think of exercise as extending the quantity of life, but really it’s about quality of life. In addition to losing muscle, as you age you have less energy and tend to move less, and so that makes you want to do less.”
Another problem with growing older is that old injuries or newer ailments take their toll. Pain often hampers the desire or even one’s ability to be physically active. “If you have arthritis or fibromyalgia, joints can hurt. But you’re supposed to exercise because if you don’t move, you become less able to move,” notes Ross-Spang. Part of exercising is making sure each movement is done correctly. “I have people here who say they can’t do lunges or squats because their knees hurt but if you do it correctly, the knee pain goes away. That’s because when done correctly, the knee gets strengthened, the muscles around it get stronger, and you get back a lot more function you thought was gone.”
He cites an 84-year-old client who’s been exercising with him for the past 10 years. She came because she was afraid of becoming frail as she grew older. While she no longer does exercises that bother her shoulder, she comes three times a week, “and to my mind, she hasn’t gone down any since I’ve known her. I don’t think she’s lost any function; it appears she can still do things she could do 10 to 12 years ago. I’ve told her there are exercises she’s not supposed to do after 60 and she says, ‘I don’t ever want to hear those words,’” Ross-Spang says with a laugh.
Those are certainly words you’ll never hear uttered by Bob Berger Sr. At age 83, Berger still cycles and swims regularly, and plays Pickleball (a game that’s a cross between tennis and ping-pong) several times a week at Germantown United Methodist Church. Berger didn’t take up most of the activities he enjoys until after his retirement from the Civil Service more than 20 years ago. His interest in cycling was stoked in 1993, when a friend invited him to go out for a spin. He found he enjoyed it — immensely. Since then, he’s logged more than 10,000 miles on his bike, going on cycling adventures that have taken him to Denmark, England, and many states across the U.S. At age 75, he hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, stayed several nights, then hiked back out. He’s run six half-marathons and regularly competes in a host of events in the Senior Olympics, last year bringing home 12 gold, seven silver, and three bronze medals.
Though Berger confesses to having no regular exercise regime (and is fortunate to be injury-free), “I give everything a good try. Some things I’m better at than others, but I give it all a good try,” he says wryly.
Though Berger is admittedly more active than most retirees his age, Ross-Spang and Hughes say many people shy away from doing any physical activity in an effort to accommodate or compensate for their lack of mobility. But the bottom line is simple: Just get moving. “Do exercises that mimic what the body is doing in life,” says Hughes. “It will make you better. Squat down and pick up your grandchildren, don’t just pick them up with your arms.” Park farther away from the store and walk to the door. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Begin with small steps at first, by taking short 10-minute walks a day, then add three to five minutes each day as the weeks progress. You eventually want to work up to exercising five days a week, 30 minutes a day.
“We don’t want to get old in our 50s; that’s just middle age,” says Ross-Spang. “We’re not going gently into that good night.”
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