Forget about your age

Here is an inspirational story about living long and living well.

I am in a Facebook group called “Fitness over 60”, for fitness and sports enthusiasts aged 60 and above. I enjoy seeing posts about how people are developing or maintaining their fitness as they age.

In May, I saw a post by

Mary Ellen Gross

that stopped me in my tracks. She said:

“I told you all it is coming and now it’s here.

I just turned 80 yesterday.”

Here is the picture she put up.

More like 60 than 80, don’t you think?

In an earlier post she said

she has been working out for 37 years.

I was fascinated to know how she maintained her motivation for that length of time, so I contacted her and asked if she would be willing to do an interview with me for my blog.

She agreed and we met online for a great discussion.

At the age of 38 Mary Ellen moved from the east coast to San Diego where running was a big thing, physically and socially. Following three months of training she ran a half marathon with a friend, never having previously thought of herself as a runner or an athlete. But this gave her the confidence to know that she could do something more.

She walked into a gym near her house, not knowing that she would be one of the only women in The Gym and one of the few who was not a professional bodybuilder. Over the years she has been in and out of various gyms as she joined her husband in training.

She has also faced some challenges. Her husband was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, and she was a caregiver for him for five years. Then she developed severe spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, and was affected to the point that she needed help to walk at her husband’s funeral. After the funeral she was grieving, but she was determined to get well. She found a physiotherapist who came to the house three times a week to work with her. Within 10 months she was able to walk with no pain.

She said to herself:

“If I can walk to the parking lot of The Gym and into the gym I will join it again”.

That was three years ago.

The universe aligned so that when Mary Ellen walked back into The Gym she saw a trainer she had known from 37 years ago, Ricky Lee Bryant, who was a Mr Natural Universe champion. Pulling Mary Ellen into his office Ricky Lee suggested she consider doing a bodybuilding contest. He told her she was a mesomorph, a body type with a naturally high muscle-to-fat ratio. Mary Ellen works out with Ricky Lee four days a week. She is pain free and has never felt better.

Because of her back problem Ricky Lee gets her to work on her core. They do stretching first. Then ab exercises. She is always complaining. They banter like an old married couple. But really anything he says to do is fine with her because he has kept her pain free. Each day they work on something different: legs, back and biceps, chest and triceps, whatever he wants to do. He does sets of 12, 15 or 20 depending on the exercise.

If she happens to drop the weight too heavily, he will say she has to start all over again. He is very strict with her, no concessions to her age. He says “respect the equipment”. He has taught her so much over and above the basic exercises. She trusts him 100%. She may grump at him and stick her tongue out when he walks away. But she acknowledges that, as he says, it is for her own good.

Mary Ellen declares weight training to be a passion for her, much the same way that other people are passionate about painting or music. Since she entered the gym she has always admired women who were bodybuilders. She understands that at her age not many people have this kind of interest. She accepts that this is her path. Mary Ellen says: “Our gym is always putting in new equipment. It is my fun place, it is a toy store. We have fun with it.”

During her time of healing from grief, Mary Ellen established a serious meditation practice. She decided that if she wanted to get to the next level of getting out in the world, as Mary Ellen Gross, widow, she had to do something. Therapy helped but what really strengthened her was meditation.

I asked Mary Ellen about longevity – what living long and living well means to her. “It means doing exactly what I am doing now – no changes. I don’t want to give up the gym”.

She saw what happened to her husband physically and mentally – and does not want to go through that. But all she can do is what she is doing right now, and she is not going to think negatively ahead.

She has not set any goals for the future. “I want to be where I am,” says Mary Ellen. She wants to be able to keep up what she is thinking today and the physicality of what she is doing today. She is happy with where she is now and hopes it continues.

She realises she has to take advantage of now because she doesn’t know what is around the corner. But she is not thinking about it. She is thinking of going to the gym tomorrow and what her trainer has in store for her.

For Mary Ellen fitness is like achieving a dream. She is lucky enough four days a week to live her dream.

Mary Ellen advises if you are older and not sure of how to deal with physical maladies, get checked by your doctor and then try something. You can do chair yoga – you don’t have to go to a gym to work out. It is a mental attitude that you are not going to just sit in the rocking chair.

The myth that Mary Ellen would like to debunk is that you are too old to do it.

Mary Ellen’s friends are astonished at what she does. She is astounded at herself. When she reached her 80th birthday, she felt great. She feels so lucky to be doing exactly what she wants to do.

The gift that her husband Ted gave her was the encouragement “Mary Ellen, you can do anything”. When she is in the gym, she can hear him saying that to her.

Mary Ellen would like you to believe that this is true for you too:

You can do anything!

Written by Coach Suzi on 9 June 2024, interview recorded via Google Meet on 3 June 2024. Photos supplied by Mary Ellen Gross.

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