How Aging Affects Women’s Strength

How Aging Affects Women’s Strength

by Cheryl Fusco Johnson

Published in the Iowa Source, May, 2010

Years ago, a cast-iron skillet changed the life of elementary school physical education teacher Susie Hathaway and later the lives of many dozens of women, mostly aged 50 and over, who now flood her weight training classes.

“When I picked up that cast-iron pan full of stew, I realized I wasn’t as strong anymore,” Susie explains.  “Even though I was really active—biking, walking, swimming, and gardening—I was still losing strength,” she says.

This loss of strength startled Susie, even though she was well acquainted with many aspects of health and fitness. After all, she’d earned a B. A. in health education from Central Washington State College and received her Physical Education Certification from Iowa Wesleyan.  For 10 years, she’d taught P. E. at a private elementary school in Fairfield, too.

After the cast-iron pan incident, which entailed a pulled muscle that took months to heal, Susie launched into an exploration of how aging affects women’s bodies.  The book Strong Women Stay Young, by Tufts University professor Miriam E. Nelson and Sarah Wernick, ignited Susie’s interest in strength training. An award-winning researcher who studies the effects of exercise and nutrition on older adults, Dr. Nelson touts weight lifting as nearly a panacea. Her research, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, established that weight lifting improves balance and flexibility, builds bone, increases energy, and makes women stronger.

Susie’s weight lifting students confirm Dr. Nelson’s findings. After starting twice-weekly group classes with Susie, Barbara Wacknov achieved great results.  “Within two years, I had improved bone density by eight percent,” she reported.  She no longer tested within the osteoporosis range.

About a year after beginning individual weight training sessions with Susie, Becky Shreck spent a couple days hiking in Vail with her family. “I loved it,” she announced, “I can actually hike uphill—better than a couple of my kids!”

“People are never too old to get fit,” Susie insists. Certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine, she’s helped her mother, age 87, stay physically active.

“My mother, who’s had two knee replacements, can do squats. She can do a slow step up. She can do these exercises,” Susie explains.

Susie, who completed the 2009 Copper Creek Triathlon in Des Moines and trains Saturday mornings with fellow triathletes, attributes her own active lifestyle to both her parents. “We were never allowed to play indoors as children if the weather was the least bit good,” she recalls.

Today her parents (her dad is 89) walk about two miles a day, do water exercises, and ride bikes. Her mom strength trains with weights, and her dad digs in the garden and chops wood. “They are my heroes,” Susie confides, while recognizing that many elders are far less agile.

“The main physical reason women in their 80s lose their independence is lack of leg strength,” she says. “If people in their 50s or 60s find it hard to get up out of a deep couch or out of a low car seat, it’s important for them to start doing leg exercises so that in 20 or 30 years they can get out of the bathtub and off the couch and keep their independence,” she adds.

“Keep moving!” Susie urges.

Small changes add up, she says, and she provides examples. Move trashcans away from desks so you have to stand to throw things away. While you’re standing, do a few squats. Move around when you talk on the phone. With a stopwatch, time yourself walking at least 10 minutes three times a day. Keeping an exercise log and seeking out like-minded exercise buddies are good strategies, also, she says.

For more tips and motivation, Susie recommends reading books like Strong Women Stay Young and Younger Next Year for Women, by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, M.D. (there’s a men’s version, too), or visiting Dr. Nelson’s Strong Women website: www.strong women.com.

Susie didn’t start out intending to teach strength training. That cast-iron pan convinced her merely that she needed to make herself stronger. “People asked me to teach them, and I thought I should get certified,” Susie explains. “Women love to exercise with women.

Today Susie gracefully accepts her role as a mentor. “Teaching classes of children who were new at just about anything that I taught them and teaching women strength training, which was completely new to almost everybody—it wasn’t that different,” Susie concludes. With a giggle, she adds, “Except that the women mind better.”

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