“You’re Never Too Old to Exercise. A 98-Year-Old Shows Us Why”

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The Story

“You’re Never Too Old to Exercise. A 98-Year-Old Shows Us Why”
by Jeanne Erdmann
Washington Post, December 16, 2013

The Pitch

Dear Nora,

My friend and colleague [redacted] suggested I contact you about pitching a reported essay on my weekly trips to the gym with my mom (who just turned 98 years old). Mom moved in with us about 13 years ago, and that’s how long she’s been working with a personal trainer. I’ve attached some clips, and I’ve also attached a video taken last week of mom doing leg curls. Here’s the pitch:

My badass mom

At 98-years-old, my mom is the darling of the bodybuilders at our local gym. Her longtime fitness habit keeps her mobile despite crushing osteoarthritis in her left knee, and shows that we underestimate how much strength we can build at any age.

A few years ago, my mom woke up and complained about pain in her left arm. I wasn’t sure what to do so I called the doctor, who put her through a full day of cardiac testing. One of the tests required Mom to walk at a certain speed on a treadmill. She was around 90-years-old then, and the staff at the cardiac center worried that she’d come tumbling off the equipment. One person stood on each side of her, and one stood behind her, in case Mom lost her balance and fell. They needn’t have worried. Head forward, her legs easily kept pace with the treadmill’s moving belt. Eventually, she turned and looked at one of the hovering attendants and said, “You know, I work out with a personal trainer every week.”

My mom has always valued exercise, and she instilled that in me from an early age. When I was young and we were in the backyard, rather than walk to the house she’d
race me. She kept fit in part by cutting the grass in her large yard, which she did throughout her seventies. After Mom was widowed and no longer wanted to live alone, she moved in with us. That was thirteen years ago, and at first, the transition didn’t go well. Mom missed her old neighborhood and felt isolated on our rural street. To get her socialized and keep her osteoarthritis at bay I signed her up for an aerobics class and took the class with her. She and the instructor Angie hit it off so well that I signed Mom on with weekly, private workouts.

From the start, Angie put Mom, then 85, through a challenging, hour-long program that hit every major muscle group. Mom loved the attention everyone paid her and she got stronger. After a few months Angie had me feel Mom’s abs. They were rock hard. She can still, with only a bit of steadying, climb in and out of the bathtub (she hates showers). There are honestly some weeks that Mom doesn’t feel like going to the gym but she goes anyway, and always tries hard. Today, she does have dementia, which started a few years ago, but I’m convinced that working out has slowed her decline and allowed her to stay with us rather than a nursing home. Plus the experience has enriched our relationship (not to mention making me strong enough to be a high level figure skater both in freestyle and ice dance at age 60–I started when I was age 51).

Plenty of new and ongoing research shows the physical and cognitive benefits of exercise (bone and immune health, fall prevention, hippocampal volume), and I’d certainly include the best of those studies in this article. But I also want to write about the fact that we greatly underestimate the sheer physical strength we’re capable of achieving at any age.

Last week at the gym when I was taking the video of mom doing leg curls, I filmed her second set. I counted along and at 10 reps, I said, “That’s 10 Mom!” Thinking she was done, Mom stopped the exercise. Not very happy with me, Angie turned and said, “She does fifteen.”

Here’s a bit about me: I’m a former bone researcher turned health and science writer. I just had a big feature on postmortem genetic testing in the November issue of Nature Medicine. My feature on knee health in young women will be published in the December issue of Women’s Health. I’m finishing up a prestigious fellowship from the Association of Health Care Journalists. (Of the handful of fellowships awarded, I’m the only freelancer chosen). I’ve been spending a year working on a series of stories about disparities in breast cancer and other types of genetic testing that will also be published in Slate. I also write for Cure, Discover, Nature, and, Scientific American, and I co- produce The Open Notebook (opennotebook-2022.mystagingwebsite.com), a website for science writers.

Here are a few clips that I have in PDF form. I can send more if you like. I look forward to your reply.
Warmest regards,

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