Survival of the Fittest

The Survival of the Fittest. Never has that phrase had such resonance in my lifetime.

The viral pandemic which is slowly gathering pace globally, is showing itself to be readily transmitted but, thankfully relatively mild, as long as you are young, fit and your immune system is strong enough to fight it. I have been planning for some weeks to create a piece with my personal trainer, Lindsay Burrows, about the importance of fitness as we get older, not realising just how apposite the timing would be. For nearly 4 years Lindsay has chipped away at my profound resistance to any and all forms of physical activity with great patience and good humour. Working with her has changed my mind, my body and my life. Scarily, in this pandemic it might even save my life.

I had long associated exercise with a kind of grunting effort and sweating a lot. Lindsay has shown me that it can also be about grace, fluidity of movement and a feeling of power and confidence.

Tricia Cusden before and after excercising

Here is Lindsay’s account of some of the challenges of working with an older exercise refusenik like me and her tips on getting the best from any exercise that you engage with.

“Exercise. The very word at one time would have made me run for cover. My memories of overly-competitive school sports are not the best, made worse by the dreadful uniform. Fast forward a few decades and I still sometimes have to pinch myself to think that I own and run a health and wellbeing business, in which ‘exercise’ plays an important role.

What changed? I blame Jane Fonda in the first instance. With the advent of aerobics when exercise was put to music, it suddenly became such fun for me. It encouraged me to try other things and in the process, I found activities I enjoyed. All of them were a long way from the freezing cold hockey pitches and muddy cross country courses. The biggest revelation though, was its impact on my state of mind. I found myself uplifted and positive. After an exercise session, I was ready to take on everything that life threw at me. I knew I wanted to share the powerful lessons I had learned.

One of my main motivations in starting Me Spot was to help women over 50 to look and feel their very best, to encourage them to believe in and value themselves, and to support them to live their best life. Exercise is a powerful tool in all those areas but not if the legacy of school PE gets in the way. Challenging our mindset and addressing our pre-conceptions is key. There is no question that the most exciting things lie beyond the comfort zone.

So it was when I met Tricia, incredibly, almost 4 years ago. Tricia’s inspirational Look Fabulous Forever story is well-documented. Her achievements are exceptional. She has broken through barriers, challenged stereotypes and is the best example of what is possible irrespective of age. Yet, by her own admission, exercise was her nemesis.

Her logical brain recognised that exercise was the magic pill. She knew that it could ward off most of the major illnesses, help prevent injuries and falls, relieve aches and pains, boost energy and confidence levels, not to mention the ‘aesthetic’ benefits. In short it could help dramatically improve and extend the quality of her life.

Her emotional brain was still struggling to make it happen.

Reframing exercise in this context as opposed to the usual  ‘bulging biceps and 6 pack abs’ way the exercise industry presents itself, is the first important step towards turning exercise into a positive experience rather than a negative one. Looking at the images on websites and reading the language that is used will give you a very good idea of whether a trainer, class or gym is right for you. Feeling comfortable and having trust is critical, as is the knowledge and experience of working with ‘older’ women (by which I actually mean anyone not in their 20’s as this is all most gyms seems to understand). Motivations are different and bodies do change. That is not to say that many of the changes cannot be reversed (also super exciting!) but adaptations need to be made along the way. 

Tricia tasked me with improving her balance so she could prevent falls, building her strength so she could get up and down easily (including getting out of her lovely low-slung sports car), developing her posture and, more particularly, eliminating the rounded upper back, and working towards greater cardiovascular fitness…so she can dance with her grandson Patrick when he is 30 and she is 90!  

This is a very different set of priorities, focused on enhancing quality of life, maintaining independence, warding off disease and quite simply extending life.  How uplifting that, exercise, when properly targeted, can deliver on all this and more. 

Not having exercised for most of her adult life, at 68, Tricia and I were starting from scratch.

Unsurprisingly, she was stiff in lots of areas and so we modified the exercises to suit what she could do and built them up gradually. She had never had to pay much attention to the positioning of her body (known as proprioception) and found it challenging to put the cues I was giving into action. Most of the exercises were new to her and took time to execute well. Probably the biggest challenge of all was overcoming the mind. As far as Tricia was concerned, she hated exercise but it was a necessary evil. I had to get creative and find ways to motivate her – they generally involved providing her with markers on when it was going to end!!! 

Tricia Cusden doing her exercise routine, bicep curls

It wasn’t long before things started to change. Tricia’s arms became more toned and she announced to me one day that she had been out in a sleeveless t-shirt while on holiday. Her back became much flatter. Her shoulders released, allowing her to do zips up more easily without having to ask for help. She tripped badly when she was out shopping but managed to stop herself falling. She sprinted up the stairs with a suitcase in hand to catch a train without even thinking about it. When I read in one of her recent blogs (because obviously she would never admit it to me!) that these days she ‘almost’ looks forward to our sessions, I knew I had cracked it!!

Tricia’s exercise journey is a world away from school PE. It has required commitment and determination as well as an ability to break through mental barriers: often even more challenging than physical ones.

What she has achieved is not only inspirational, it is life-changing.

Way beyond the planks (did I mention she can now hold one for a minute?!), squats and the bicep curls, she is giving herself the gift of health, happiness and longevity. What could possibly be more important?” 

Lindsay’s Tips for Getting the Best from Exercise

  1. Make sure you warm up and cool down/stretch properly each time you exercise. This will take longer to make sure the body is properly prepared for the activity ahead and to avoid injury.
  2. If you find an exercise difficult or it causes discomfort, don’t push on through. Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to stop.
  3. Choose teachers who are ready to adapt where necessary and offer you alternative options. Teachers who are experienced with older people will know that there are common areas that can be restrictive eg stiff shoulders when trying to do an overhead tricep extension, or tightness in the front of the thigh preventing you from holding your foot when trying to do a standing stretch.
  4. Look out for teachers who focus on technique and good form. I have been in classes personally where I have not heard a single teaching point.
  5. Ideally in every case (but this is more challenging in a group exercise situation), the instructor should do a proper assessment of your current abilities and fitness levels right at the start and plan session accordingly, increasing the challenge very gradually.
  6. If you are working one to one, make sure the trainer understands your motivations and is prepared to create bespoke sessions to meet your brief.
  7.  Most important of all, choose something you enjoy. That way you’ll stick at it and reap the benefits!

I do hope that Lindsay’s account of working with me and her tips have inspired you to think about your own level of fitness and how you might improve it. I know that some of you will think ‘it’s ok for her but I can’t afford a personal trainer’. I acknowledge that it’s a choice not open to everyone but it really is the only way I can commit to include regular structured exercise into my busy schedule. The dates are in the diary and they are sacrosanct. I also try to walk everywhere and for two years I have used a small foldable exercise bike for 30 minutes at least 3-4 times a week. This neat little pink bike is on sale at Argos for £79.99 and it’s worth it’s weight in gold because I can have a great aerobic workout even when it’s cold, dark and raining cats and dogs. Do share your exercise experience with us, especially if you have had a similar ‘profound resistance’ to overcome like me. And in these scary and challenging times do look after yourself and keep washing those hands!

P.S. I will be taking part in a Q&A with British womenswear designer, Lalage Beaumont at her London boutique alongside Country Life’s Luxury Editor, Hetty Lintell, talking about clothes and makeup for special occasions. I will also be bringing our range of makeup and skincare for you all to try as well as goody bags for all who attend. Join me on Wednesday 25th March from 6pm - 8pm, see more information here.