70 is not too late to start weightlifting
July 23, 2021 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Joan Macdonald has not always looked like a bodybuilder. At 71, she weighed 90kg (14st 4lb), and had rising blood pressure and kidney troubles. She was also on medication for cholesterol and acid reflux, and her doctor wanted to double the dose. Her daughter, Michelle, expressed Macdonald’s dilemma bluntly. “You’re going to end up like your mother did in a nursing home!” she told Macdonald. “And people are going to have to look after you. Do you want that?” “Of course I didn’t want it,” Macdonald says now. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” A Guardian short profile of a woman who started lifting weights at 71. (Content warning: seems not great about health at any size.)
posted by Bella Donna (19 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
90kg (14st 4lb)

Nope, still not helping.
posted by The Tensor at 2:09 PM on July 23 [19 favorites]

It's about 58,000 dwt.
posted by 7segment at 2:24 PM on July 23 [13 favorites]

Her website has it in pounds for Americans but honestly, the weight thing is a red herring. She in on Instagram (of course, she is) and YouTube, both of which are linked from her website. Go nuts. I am in my 60s and I would be happy to go off various medications if I could.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:30 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]

(Content warning: seems not great about health at any size.)
Yeah, no kidding. The article is not great about body-shaming, but it's kind of following the lead of the subject, and it makes me feel really bad for her. On the one hand, it's great that she has increased her fitness level and is reaping so many physical and emotional benefits. On the other hand, it's deeply sad that she was motivated by so much body shame, which seems to have made her so miserable. And that thing about thinking that her daughter didn't like or respect her because of of her weight and fitness level? Jeezopete. So many of us have so much angst about our bodies, and I wish we could value being strong for its own sake, not because it can save us from the trauma of living in an unacceptable body.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:35 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]

Or quit your job and start a bookstore, apparently! Which is much more in line with my goals. Yep, downsize into a nice little place and have a downstairs for books. Get a coffee machine and some comfy chairs in there, and make sure there's a pizza place nearby selling slices. Allow people to buy the books to support the coffee machine. Pretend I won't buy any more books until I've read all the ones I have.
posted by bashing rocks together at 3:14 PM on July 23 [5 favorites]

I think 'Strength Training Helped Me Transform My Body in My 70s' (Joan MacDonald & Kirsti Buick, Women's Health UK, Sept. 2020) is a less-complicated read, despite having additional specifics re: body size, exercise, & food regimen (if you're avoiding those details) and more about her late mother. Maybe this awful year is tinting the Guardian's piece somewhat (as at one point, "[s]he sounds as if she is holding back tears".) This is an installment in a lady mag's "fit at any age" series, written from MacDonald's perspective:

I was in my 70s when I knew I had to make a change. It was a couple of things that were all happening around the same time. I had terrible swelling in my ankles, painful arthritis and I had difficulty walking up and down stairs. I was on medication for high blood pressure and acid reflux, and my doctor had just told me that I may need to increase the dosage. I was tired, I was emotional, and I was in desperate need of a change.

On top of that, my mother's health was also declining – and I knew I did not want to follow the same path she was on. [MacDonald describes joining her fitness-trainer daughter's online support group, starting strength training, her current workout schedule, etc.] And at 10 months, I was able to get off my blood pressure and acid reflux medication. In addition, my cholesterol medication dropped by 50%. Currently I am off all medications! [...] I lost my mother in the first year, which was a real tragedy for me personally, but I kept training and following my meal plan throughout it all. I didn’t go back to my old habits.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:37 PM on July 23 [8 favorites]

Oh my, at the risk of derail, that bookstore article that bashing rocks together posted is lovely:
Her first sale was hard. “I sort of held on to the book. I said: ‘You’ll enjoy this. I enjoyed it very much and it’s a little bit difficult to let it go.’ We had a laugh. And I did let it go.

“It still feels, when a special book goes out, like a bit of a loss – as if some little part of me has been taken away. And then I make common sense come back to me and say: ‘Let someone else learn from it.’ It’s a growing up, if you like, an acceptance.”
I have to confess this has been my dream since I was in my teens. Reading this passage made me go all misty. What a splendid way to spend your senior years and keep you feeling alive and connected -- I envy her.
posted by darkstar at 3:50 PM on July 23 [6 favorites]

As a person who was completely sedentary and facing all sorts of medical issues as I started my 50s then basically turned it all around by getting serious about exercise, I find her super motivational...but then again I frequently look at her photos/vids on Instagram and definitely ignore the captions. Intentional weight loss (IWL) is a trap, and Health At Every Size (HAES) is absolutely the way to go. And starting small and eventually working up to bigger and bigger exercise goals turns out to be the absolute bomb. If you find her motivational, cool. If you want to chuck her in the bin and move along to some other form of motivation, cool. But if you're thinking you're too old to start, you're wrong. Pick a baby step and get moving.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:06 PM on July 23 [18 favorites]

And that thing about thinking that her daughter didn't like or respect her because of of her weight and fitness level? Jeezopete.

I didn't interpret her statement that way. It seemed more that she was ashamed that she wasn't taking better care of herself. Her weight was causing her to take lots of medication and her illnesses would likely put her in a nursing home.

I wish we could value being strong for its own sake, not because it can save us from the trauma of living in an unacceptable body.

She was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Continuing to treat her body the way she did was going to result in her needing care.
posted by shoesietart at 4:14 PM on July 23 [15 favorites]

She looks like she’s having fun. Don’t yuck on her yum.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:01 PM on July 23 [11 favorites]


People vary a *lot* in their ability to gain mass and strength from exercise.

It's still worth trying, but the idea that because one person succeeds, anyone who does roughly the same thing will also succeed, is just not true.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:26 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]

That’s completely true and yet reading about this woman who started weightlifting at 71X me more willing, in my 60s, to give it a go. So that’s a perspective I did not have before I read that article.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:19 AM on July 24 [15 favorites]

I don't think it's ever too late to start strength training if there are no medical issues that make it inadvisable.

At 49 I weighted 130 kg (287 lb) and doing a bodyweight squat was a pipedream. I adopted a more sensible diet, and started weight training. I'm now 52, weigh 100 kg (221 lb), and can squat my own bodyweight. My waist has gone from 46" to 38", my blood pressure has dropped, and I feel far more mobile.

So many people are put off strength training by the image of vein-popping bodybuilders, or assume that it takes hours of heavy lifting a day, or (especially for women) that they will suddenly develop huge muscles. In fact, all manner of ages and body types are seen down the gym, and I've achieved my gains with an average of 3 40-minute sessions (not including warm-up and stretching time) a week. If Mrs Clanger (who got into weight training at the same time as me) and I had our way, strength training would be taught in schools and GPs would be able to prescribe coaching on the NHS.
posted by Major Clanger at 3:29 AM on July 24 [13 favorites]

Regarding the study linked above ('Variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training'), I wanted to note that in every study I've read regarding strength training there is a range of responses in the participants, with most gaining some strength/muscle size, a small number gaining significant strength/muscle size and a small number gaining no, or even losing some strength/muscle size.

People in the latter group have traditionally been called 'non-responders' but this terminology is losing favour for a few reasons:

- By necessity, everyone participating in a study follows the same exercise protocol. In real training, if a protocol isn't working you adjust it until it does. It takes some experimentation to figure out how much training volume each individual needs to get the desired adaptations.

- Studies are usually limited to a period of a few weeks. Training can be affected by a range of factors including diet, sleep, and stressors like work or family problems. Researchers can control for some of these factors (eg there were some controls for diet in the linked study) but not all.

- Possibly related to this point, these kinds of studies aren't necessarily reproducible. When studies are repeated at different intervals, participants who were 'low/non-responders' in the first phase may be higher responders in the second phase (example).

These kinds of articles (old person capable of picking up objects without dying! - example 1 and example 2) always seem a bit odd to me till I talk to someone outside my powerlifting bubble and remember there's a shocking number of misconceptions about strength training (and fitness in general) floating around.

Strength training is very safe, can be adapted to almost any ability level, and is one of the most effective interventions available to reduce frailty and increase physical independence in old age.
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 7:04 AM on July 24 [15 favorites]

I have many thoughts on this. Good for her! I'm glad lifting makes her feel good.

But profiles like this smell of survivorship bias. Can most people at 70 comfotably lift? I don't know. (On preview, I see Nancy Lebovitz has posted a valuable study showing that the benefits of strength training may be highly variable, which is a concern I hadn't thought about until now.)

But also I wish more people (e.g., my parents) would give weights a shot. Many people (e.g., my parents) equate exercise with cardio which is fine unless you hate cardio, then that belief gets in the way. My dad bought a bike that he never uses. I wonder if he'd move more if he had chosen to lift instead. There's also no requirement to get bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger — lifting moderate weights will still get your heart pumping and train the muscles you already have.

Lifting is my main exercise and it's great for me — if my choices were cardio or be sedentary I'd probably work out a lot less. It's not for everyone: some people just don't like it, and some have physical challenges that mean they can't do some lofts comfortably. At the same time, cardio isn't for everyone, so having options is good! That's what I liked about this article, spreading the word that lifting isn't just for young people who are already buff. The reasons to dislike the article have already been covered above.
posted by Tehhund at 5:43 AM on July 25 [5 favorites]

I'm happy for her but...

Her daughter, Michelle, expressed Macdonald’s dilemma bluntly. “You’re going to end up like your mother did in a nursing home!” she told Macdonald. “And people are going to have to look after you. Do you want that?”

... her daughter is a bloody moron.

Is she not aware that everyone will end up needing some assistance in their old age? It's inevitable. She shouldn't feel bad about that. Does she think that won't happen to her mother now?
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 3:03 PM on July 25

I wonder if the daughter meant that her mother was going to end up in a nursing home prematurely. It’s got to be painful to be some kind of training professional and watch a loved one seemingly go downhill faster than necessary. That still doesn’t make what the daughter said OK but apparently her mom doesn’t hold any grudge about it.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:14 AM on July 26

Fair enough. I was just concerned she was being a bit harsh with her mother. This bit "And people are going to have to look after you" could be perceived as guilt-inducing.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 8:50 AM on July 26

One of my sisters is a personal trainer specializing in the elderly, setting up post surgery routines after physical therapy.

Her recommendation is always to improve upper body strength. Older people often walk (or bike in my case) for exercise but we need to keep working on or upper bodies for needed strength.

Her other bugaboo is balance, any excercises that improve balance should be part of a routine over sixty.

I bet she's tired of hectoring me about this, so I will use this lady to get back on my schedule that I dropped in February. It's never too late.
posted by readery at 1:57 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]

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