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HOW I HIT ON THE ULTIMATE HIGH: Reluctant gym-goer Kate Spicer decided, aged 53, to do something about her ‘Olive Oyl’ physique – so started lifting weights. She quickly discovered a wealth of healthy side effects
- The American College of Sports Medicine advises weight training for over 50s
- However, Kate Spicer reveals that many of us don’t understand the benefit
- A rounded training programme will work all the major muscles in the abdominals, arms, shoulders, back, chest and legs
On the first day of my eight-week weight-training programme at London’s Roar gym I can feel my inner 17-year-old tugging at my sleeve and whispering, ‘You don’t belong here. Let’s bunk off for a fag.’
But I do belong here. I’m here to work, without being too dramatic, as if my life depended on it. At 53, I’ve started to consider seriously what the ageing process might entail. There is unequivocal scientific evidence showing that strength/resistance/weight training, call it what you will, protects us as we get older. England’s chief medical officer recommends that we exercise using our major muscle groups at least twice a week. This protects us not just from having to buy new jeans but also from stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. It’s linked to better mental health, delay in the onset of dementia, improved quality of life and wellbeing. It also reduces the risk of falls.
The American College of Sports Medicine advises weight training for all people over 50. Yet we don’t seem to have registered how crucial it is. In 2019, a report by the UK’s chief medical officers said, ‘Recommendations made in 2011 on muscle strength have not achieved the recognition we believe they merit. We underline the importance of regular strength and balance activities.’
If you’re reading this thinking you’re too old, stop. A study reported in the journal Science Daily, of 26 people aged from 91 to 96, found strength training produced ‘significant increases in the physical capacity of frail elderly people… raised their functional capacity, lowered the risk of falls and improved muscle power’. Ernestine Shepherd is the world’s oldest female bodybuilder and only began lifting weights at 56. Now 86, she’s still going strong, teaching aerobics and looking astonishing. So the question isn’t, is it too late, but rather, what the hell’s stopping you?
The American College of Sports Medicine advises weight training for over 50s. However, Kate Spicer reveals that many of us don’t understand the benefit
At Roar, I meet its founder, former Olympic speed skater Sarah Lindsay, 42. She’s beautiful, energetic and sparkling with confidence.
‘I’ve got a bit of a bad back,’ I say, to which she brightly tells me that most people have some kind of bad back. By now we are in the gym and she is showing me an exercise involving a large metal beast loaded up with weights that is pushed along the floor like a sledge. She glides down its track saying, ‘I’ve got bulging discs. Weights make the rest of the body strong enough to support it.’
With a swish of her ponytail, she reduces the weight by 50kg for me to give it a go. Easy! Oof, no it’s not! It’s like pushing a brick wall. She adjusts my position and removes even more weight. Whoopee, off we go, albeit at a quarter of a mile an hour. Olive Oyl has arrived.
A rounded training programme will work all the major muscles in the abdominals, arms, shoulders, back, chest and legs. Given my bad back, a period with a trainer feels sensible so when Lindsay goes to Dubai to open more gyms, I see her colleague Alex Smith.
DON’T FANCY THE GYM?
There’s a lot of great advice online which you can use to get started with training at home, including some excellent female-focused video tutorials by The Fit Mother Project and weightlifting influencer Shelley Darlington. Also check out Nike Training Club which is free and packed with how-tos. If you can get past the big beefy bro look, google the big names in weights such as Alan Thrall and Jeff Nippard, who have good online advice on form. Also try Aaptiv and Freeletics for monthly online subscriber-guided training sessions (remember to warm up before you train, stretch afterwards and rehydrate with plenty of water).
At first, I find my programme of three hour-long sessions a week a bit… well, boring. I’m just lifting things up and down, the only reward being that I’ve done it. But after session five, a funny thing happens: when I leave the gym and walk out on to the street I’m on such a high that I ring a friend, bubbling with optimism and excitement. I want to go, ‘Woo!’ Which is not me.
Why did I feel like this? Because weightlifting gives you a shot of the body’s post-sport high: endorphins, dopamine and anabolic (building and repairing) hormones. Not to mention the body’s messengers like testosterone and something called brainderived neurotrophic factor, the absence of which is a factor in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and memory loss. Here is the carrot that might keep me in the gym for life: a cascade of positive mental effects caused by strengthening my body.
‘Do you have any goals?’ says Smith after a few sessions. Erm, not to be frail when I am old, I tell her. ‘Anything a bit more immediate that we can work towards now?’ she asks.
‘How about a pull-up?’ I say, though I am pretty sure I could do one now. I jump up to the bar and lift myself up maybe half an inch. There is no way round it. I am not strong, and to become strong will require regular work for longer than eight weeks. It will also require me to eat more protein, says Roar’s in-house nutritionist James CastleMason, who weighs me, photographs me and pinches every part of my body with callipers on a regular basis. There is an app where I can track my progress in the gym and on the scales and find recipes and meal plans.
The combination of protein and weight training is crucial for retaining muscle mass after 50, explains Imperial College London medical scientist and nutritionist Dr Federica Amati. Given lean muscle mass depreciates by five to ten per cent every decade after 50, weight training is ‘essential to maintain as much muscle as possible and to help keep bone density’, she says. ‘For women, muscle tissue breakdown during the menopause results in higher protein needs to maintain healthy body composition. To retain this lean muscle, it’s important to add more protein and fibre-rich plant foods such as lentils and nuts – and reduce sugar and starchy foods.’ By week three I’m starting to grunt while doing the exercises.
By week five the grunts have grown to all-out growls and yelps. The burn in my quads as I do leg extensions is hard but weirdly pleasant. As I sit taking a minute’s rest (recovering means you won’t lift when you’re tired, which can lead to injury) I even find myself thinking, ‘I’m a legend!’ and feel so strong I might as well be Obelix carrying a menhir. While this is clearly a fantasy, my body has changed: my jeans are looser around the waist and hang off my slightly more pert bum rather than cling to my thighs. It feels like the start of a rewarding journey – as long as I can keep it up on my own.
At my final meeting with Castle-Mason and the callipers I have lost 20 per cent of the fat in my chin, nearly 60 per cent on my hips, my fatty knees have shrunk and if I flex my biceps, yup, those look an awful lot like muscles popping out. My weight has dropped by only half a stone, but my body is stronger and that is the result I want. I bust out a handstand, albeit cautiously, to celebrate and manage to stay upside down on my hands. Not quite Popeye pull-ups, but very definitely not Olive Oyl any more either.
Roar is disappointed I haven’t gone full tilt on the low-carb diet but training was all I could get my head around. On the gym stairs are 100 before-and-after pictures, some of them astonishing transformations. I say to Castle-Mason, ‘They all…’ He finishes my sentence for me. ‘Followed the diet, yes.’
Later that week I pass my gate to see a great box of dog food delivered there. I am already carrying a hefty bag and a dog. Can I? I wonder. I put it under my arm and get us down the alley and up the stairs. , Yes I can! Everything is easier. In fact, I cannot think of one thing that has not improved since I started lifting weights.
- Roar is offering YOU readers 25% off ANY subscription, class bundle or in-house Roar Class throughout January, including online live and on-demand classes. For more details visit roar-fitness.com and simply enter the code YOUMAG at checkout*
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