How I Got (Really) Fit in my Fifties and Beyond
By Mary Rawles
I’m 65 and I’m an athlete. No, I don’t do anything amazing like running ultra marathons. I’m just gym-rat fit. It feels good, and I look good, too. It wasn’t always that way. You see, I was born pre-Title Nine. I grew up smoking with friends rather than working out with them. In my 30’s I quit smoking and began working out. I ran, lifted weights, etc. Eventually, I even did a mini-triathlon, but I was erratic, either fit and slim, or out of shape and gaining weight, too busy with life. Working full-time, raising kids and driving them to their sports, I was so worried about their achievements; I didn’t make time for myself.
In middle age, I gained weight going from 115 when I was 40 to 145 when I was 50. That was the beginning of yo-yo dieting. I tried every weight loss program available, losing 25 pounds then gaining 30, losing 30 then gaining 35. By age 57 I topped out at 174 pounds! I’m barely over 5 feet tall. Depressed and embarrassed, I felt isolated. I was desperate. I wanted to change, but where to start? I had belonged to gyms on and off, but by now I wasn’t about to show my body at a gym or even walking on the streets in my neighborhood.
As my weight went up, my physical health deteriorated. I’ve kept a weight diary and entries from around that time contained these complaints: racing heart, stiffness, difficulty bending down, high cholesterol, and nagging, constant knee problems. At one point my doctor advised I had severe arthritis in my knees, which surgery couldn’t fix, and to limit my activities. Luckily, another wise doctor suggested I begin exercising, biking to strengthen my quadriceps to take pressure off my knees and to lose weight. I decided to follow her advice. My road to fitness followed two phases.
Phase One: Weight Loss and Exercise Routine
Knowing that this time I wanted to lose weight gradually rather than quickly, in 2005 I made a three-year plan that turned into a lifestyle plan I continue to follow to this day. I decided I would never diet again, I would commit to eating healthy most of the time, and to never deprive myself when I really wanted to eat something. I forced myself to read articles and books about healthy food like Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules by Michael Pollen. To my amazement, I gradually became one of those people who consistently makes choices to eat fresh, wholesome foods because I like them, they’re good for my body, and they’re good for the environment, too.
Regarding fitness, I knew I had a long road back. Committing to exercise, no matter the duration or type at least 5 days a week, I made it the most important thing I did each day. I began walking, at first listening to motivational tapes just to keep my discouraged voice silenced. I joined an obscure gym where I wouldn’t know anyone! Miraculously a young yoga teacher-in-training established her first yoga class at the elementary school where I worked. Pushing tables and chairs aside, we practiced in the kindergarten room! We were a small group and I couldn’t let her down by not showing up (and paying). Gradually, I was able to cross my legs a little, bend my legs to do child’s pose. I developed arm strength doing downward dogs and plank. After three years of yoga and the gym and eating well my weight gradually began dropping. I took spin classes and even got a hybrid bike I could ride around town. By age 61 my weight was down to 134. This is where the story stops for many women my age, exercising regularly and feeling pretty pleased to be in relative good shape and at a decent weight.
In 2008 my husband I joined the local Marin Jewish Community Center (JCC). He talked me into a Pilates mat class. I hated it. When they did all those “stupid” side leg raises, I indignantly left the class because it was too hard. But I went back. I continued to do spin. I began to do Pilates three times a week. It changed my life. Developing an extremely strong core changed everything. My form on the bike changed, using core strength to pull with my legs, not just push with my feet. Unexpectedly, I was able to do all kinds of physical activities I never imagined at my age. I ventured into body toning and boot camp kinds of classes. To my amazement, I could do lunges, squats, push-ups, and could easily handle the ab-work in any class. My body changed. My waist, my lats, my arms, my stomach became toned! My weight has changed, too, as I continue to make healthy choices. My weight is in the low 120’s.
At the JCC there is a group of people who consistently show up and I made them my role models, doing double classes on occasion to ramp it up. I began to feel so much fitter and healthier, physical pains and limitations disappeared. Now, I change things up when I get bored or think I’m ready to push myself to the next level. Recently, I’ve started swimming with a masters group at the JCC. It’s not easy to learn the butterfly and breast stroke at my age. It’s killing me! As I felt about yoga, Pilates, spin, and body toning classes at first, I don’t think I can do it. It feels too hard, but I know from experience that I can do it. Just when I want to quit, thinking it’s too much, it’s not good for me to be so tired, that’s then when I need to stay with it, give it a month or two and, sure enough, I reach a new level of fitness I never dreamed possible. I’m 65 and I’m an athlete.
- Mary Rawles
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