OPINION: Please don’t stop reading after the next sentence – though I probably would have until a few weeks ago. Here goes: working out with weights at the gym regularly has changed my life.
This is coming from a lifelong, school-sport traumatised exercise phobic. Until recently, the only physical activity I could abide was yoga (especially when you lie down with your eyes closed) and any mention of the gym would have had me running – or preferably driving – a mile.
But at the ripe age of 62, I have keenly embraced this form of exercise, which I tried reluctantly at first, because it has given me incalculable benefits astonishingly quickly. It is also scientifically proven to provide protection from several potential nasties lurking ahead as later middle-age segues into properly old.
Numerous studies – including one by Iowa University of 12,000 middle-aged people – have shown how weight training benefits older people in surprisingly diverse ways. Along with weight loss as a result of increasing muscle mass (microconidia cells in muscle enthusiastically burn fat and calories) comes specifically decreased visceral fat, reduced cholesterol and blood pressure, plus a lowered risk of diabetes and heart disease.
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Then, of particular interest to people further into middle age, there is increased bone strength and protection against memory loss. On top of all that, in the Iowa study self-esteem was boosted and depression relieved.
So, the broad health benefit evidence is compelling, with additional vanity inspiration from the singer Adele’s recent body transformation, which has lifting weights at the base of her rigorous daily exercise regime.
As well as the more conventional weight machines, dumbbells and kettle weights, which she does every morning, she also advanced to the more specialist deadlifting, when you lift a bar with weights on it, Olympic weightlifter-style.
In that speciality, Adele progressed from a gentle 4.5kg start to a cool 72.5kg. Which is a little over what the average British woman weighs.
I was impressed enough to do a little research (from a reclined position) which revealed that deadlifting is a super efficient form of exercise – working the legs, core, back, shoulder and neck muscles in one grunty go.
The fact is that with lockdown lard piled on top of general mid-life muffin top, I needed to do something. I couldn’t go on not fitting into my favourite clothes – and, more urgently, I was desperate to do something about a hip problem that was making it increasingly hard for me to walk.
I didn’t find out until last year that I have congenital hip dysplasia (which all babies are checked for now, but not in 1959), which means the femur is only loosely held in the pelvic socket.
So the flexibility I’ve always thought was a talent was actually created by deformity. And suddenly I was paying the price for years of doing the splits at parties and showing off in yoga. There have been mornings when I couldn’t put my socks on, and I had to tackle stairs one slow, painful step at a time. It was scary.
Having done the physiotherapy exercises prescribed by my GP religiously and laid out quite a lot of cash on osteopaths, with limited improvement, it was time to give something else a go, and so I found myself emerging from the changing room of Station Plaza Fitness, in Hastings where I live, for my first assessment session.
It was my first visit to a proper gym for 25 years, but the easy manner of my trainer, Gilberto Cabrita da Palma, immediately made me feel less vulnerable, as he popped me on a special set of scales that measures visceral fat, bone mass, muscle mass and metabolic age, as well as kilo weight.
The results were pretty depressing, apart from my metabolic age, which turned out to be an encouraging 10 years younger than my actual age (how?), giving me a shred more confidence as we headed out into the gym floor.
But even as Gilberto showed me how to work the rowing machine, for my warmup, I noticed something different about this set up. Rather than the perfect specimens posing, and brutally assessing everyone, as I remember from younger forays gym-wards, there was a mixed pot of users, including teenage college students, whose interactions I found endearing to observe as I hauled at my oars.
There were also people on the older side – one regular is 84 – all just getting on with their own thing. Most importantly, none of them was looking at me, making the invisibility of the older woman a superpower in this context.
As Gilberto put me through my first paces on a variety of weight machines, then lifting dumbbells with squats and lunges, I found the exercises challenging but not panic-making, greatly helped by having a trainer who is kind without being patronising, not young enough to be my grandson (he’s 46) and doesn’t spend the entire session gazing at himself in the mirror. Most importantly he has a good sense of humour and laughs at my jokes. Before I knew it he was high-fiving me and my first session was over. Joyously, they are just 45 minutes long.
Waking up on the subsequent two days with no debilitating muscle pain, I was happy to go back for the next session and by the third one, I had advanced to a 3kg dumbbell for the squats – half the weight I need to lose.
As my gym sessions racked up, I was surprised how fast I progressed, going just three times a week. The weights increased each time and canny Gilberto subtly raised my reps by shifting me from three sets of 12 lifts on each machine, to four sets of 10.
We also started to concentrate more on my “form”, the position of every part of your body as you do each lift – crucial for advancing on to my goal of Adele-style deadlifting.
Suddenly, my decades of yoga and childhood ballet paid off. With the muscle memory developed doing those things, I know when I have a straight back, one of the crucial details of lifting weights up on a pole.
If you don’t have every bit of you in the right position, deadlifting can lead to bad injuries, so my journey started with lifting and bending with nothing more than a wooden pole like a broom handle. Much harder than it sounds.
Only once Gilberto is sure I have perfected the straight-backed, hip-hinged, chest-lifted forward bend with the wooden pole will he let me have a go doing it with the first level of metal bar.
Putting weights on to one of those is still a way off – but definitely worth working towards, he says, for the sheer efficiency of the exercise, though I may never be proficient enough to do it without him guiding me.
Meanwhile, I’m making great headway with the more accessible weight machines. By session six something deep had shifted. I got on to my nemesis gadget – the shoulder press – only to find that Gilberto had left it on a much lighter setting than I normally have. After considering just going with it, I reminded myself that the only person I’d be cheating was myself and told him.
“It’s exactly the same weight as last time,” he replied, as I finished with warm-knife-through-butter ease. “You’re getting stronger.”
Now, after just one month of training three times a week, I honestly can’t believe how good I feel. I’ve lost the persistent brain fog I’ve had since lockdown. I’m sleeping better, have far more energy and my husband says I’m almost annoyingly chirpy.
Most amazingly, my hip is better. Not just improved – cured. I walk completely normally, I run upstairs. The other day I walked more than 24,000 steps. It is nothing short of a physical miracle, achieved with just a few sessions lifting weights.
So that’s my internal experience. There are measurable improvements too. I haven’t lost loads of weight, but I have lost waist. My visceral fat has gone down, my muscle mass and bone density up. My metabolic rate is now that of a 46-year-old, which Gilberto says will soon show as my bulk will start to drop.
I’ve always pictured myself as one of those bendy old ladies still doing yoga at 95. Now I think I’m more likely to be a wiry bird at the gym. Who knows? I might even be deadlifting as much as Adele by then.