Strong At Any Age

Do you think you’re “too old” to work out? Are you afraid of getting injured? This article is for you! With the help of one of our favorite athletes, Janet, we hope to convince you that it’s never too late to start building functional strength, and that in fact the older you are, the more critical it becomes to embrace your physicality to ensure that you will remain strong and self-sufficient throughout your golden years.

Studies show that resistance training at *any age* and *from any starting point* can maintain and rebuild muscle mass and bone density, and that elevating your heart rate regularly can reverse age-related deterioration of your heart muscle, improve your vascular health, decrease blood pressure, and decrease your risk of a host of common poor health outcomes including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.

We absolutely understand though, that it can be very intimidating to walk into a gym (particularly a CrossFit gym!) But if Janet can do it, so can you!!

Janet’s Story

For years I saved every article I read about the importance of regular physical activity, thought about physical well-being, and made small efforts that felt large and didn’t last. I searched for personal trainers, tried working with two of them, and injured myself both times. Wary of tripping over my good intentions yet again, I settled for walking regularly and not complaining about the three flights of stairs to my apartment. I could so easily have kept on this way, always meaning to do more but never actually doing it.

Instead, I got lucky. In late August, just over a year ago, three things happened in rapid succession to knock me off the path I was on.

First, I visited life-long British friends who were just turning eighty. I hadn’t seen them since before the pandemic. As always, we walked together. But much more slowly. With frequent rest stops. With long naps afterwards. I could feel the tug of a slow but unrelenting downward spiral. It scared me.

Second, I read a New York Times article on the ferry back to the Netherlands – about a new study of strength training, aerobic exercise, and mortality that had recently been published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine. “Switching from a sedentary lifestyle to a workout schedule is comparable to ‘smoking versus not smoking,’ said Carver Coleman, a data scientist and one of the authors of the study.” I found it difficult to ignore that particular sentence, however broad the generalization, given how harshly I have judged people who smoke.

And lastly, I listened to Peter Attia summarize “an amazing study that demonstrates muscle mass changes, strength changes, and activity changes in men and women as they age. * * * At the age of 75 there is a cliff [in the data] that is so violent that you can’t believe what you’re watching. It’s at that cliff where physical activity level declines like this, it just goes boomp; muscle mass, boomp; strength, boomp. Same thing.” The sound Attia made to convey the data landing at the bottom of the cliff was particularly effective. My rendering of it as “boomp” hardly does it justice.

I wasn’t feeling particularly diminished or unable at 75, but after these three experiences I could see where I was headed if I didn’t change course and I was not about to go there. I knew that to change direction I would have to work with someone I trusted – and I knew that finding that person was not going to be easy. Back in Brooklyn, I asked for help instead of searching alone –- and I got it. A description of Noelle Nieva soon showed up in my inbox –

“Noelle specializes in working with older athletes, particularly women. She dreams of a world full of strong, kick-ass 40-, 50-, 60-, 70-, 80-, and 90 plus year-olds who are fully embracing their physicality and staying self-sufficient throughout their golden years!”

Yes! – but only if I could make it past the fact that the word “barbell” featured prominently, that the homepage photograph featured serious weightlifting, and that Brooklyn Barbell Club seemed to be part of a CrossFit gym. This was not what I thought I was looking for – but Noelle was.

Again, I was lucky. Some very classy writing softened the “barbell” blow, presenting Brooklyn Barbell Club on its homepage in eight carefully chosen words. “Dedicated, passionate, intelligent: welcome to bespoke private training.” And a Dutch trainer had already defused the worst of my CrossFit preconceptions. She was a physical therapist, CrossFit coach, running coach, triathlete and strength-endurance trainer, and, by chance, offered the Dutch exercise program for seniors that I was looking for because it was known for reducing their risk of falling. What I found, when I took a deep breath and walked into her CrossFit gym in The Hague, was not at all what I had imagined from her website’s gallery of CrossFit photos!

When we met for an assessment, I stumbled over Noelle’s first and very sensible question. What did I want? All I could really say was that I needed her because I didn’t know what I needed. I tried again in an email that I sent before our first training session.

“So, let me try again. [1] I want to trade in the baggage, the awareness of past injuries that limits me, for the ability to confidently read my own body now and as it changes. You said you would be asking me lots of questions as we worked so that I would feel and understand what we were doing. This is exactly what I think I need. [2] I want to improve my mobility / strength / alignment / balance / stamina for a long and self-sufficient life. This list may be too broad to be much help, but my repeated reference to “strength training” was, I think, too narrow. [3] In the process (which I realize will not be fast), I hope to eventually be drawn to physical activity rather than having to make myself go there.”

It’s been a year now of twice weekly sessions with Noelle, with increasing amounts of physical activity outside those sessions. In every session I’ve felt both challenged and safe. I see changes in every corner of my body – and of my life. In the process I’ve learned a lot about learning and laughed at myself a lot. It’s clear to me that the path I’m now on, this work with Noelle, is essential to my well-being.

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