4 Women Shape Up

In just three months, they learned to love exercise, healthier food — and their over-40 bodies.

By Elena Rover
Elena Rover

Getting Fit After 40

For me, the final straw was the picture. My mental self-image was that of a fit fortyish woman, but when a neighbor sent me a photo of the two of us and our kids at a party, I wondered who the porker was. Then I realized it was me.

I tried a new low-fat, low-cal diet but couldn’t stick it out for more than a few days. I pledged to exercise more but failed to carve out the time to create a real routine. I admitted I didn’t have the discipline to jump-start this change on my own, so I started investigating structured support systems: Weight Watchers, my local gym, spas, boot camp. Then I heard that MORE was recruiting volunteers for a fitness makeover that would specifically address the challenges women face after 40. The three-month program would include weekly sessions with a top personal trainer; access to Chelsea Piers, the biggest gym in New York; and advice on nutrition. I jumped at the opportunity — I had a lot to lose.

Real Women with Real Issues

Three other recruits were chosen because they, like me, struggle with the same obstacles most 40-plus women face. Marcia Wood, 46, a single mom with a four-hour commute to a Wall Street human resources job, couldn’t find time for exercise. "Last summer a group of friends started walking, but then scheduling got difficult and we stopped," she says. She was naturally thin when she was younger, but the pounds crept on after she turned 40. With a family history of arthritis and type 2 diabetes, she needs to work out to stay healthy.

Elizabeth Baller had moved to New York to care for her father. The 51-year-old nurse took a home-based job reviewing medical records, and that left her sedentary and stressed. No exercise and frequent fridge runs added up to about 30 pounds. "I used to be able to drop weight by dieting for a month," she says. But at menopause, she discovered that this strategy no longer worked. She hadn’t used a gym in years, and the new machines were foreign to her. She was concerned she would hurt her weak ankles.

Medical problems were the primary motivator for Karen Auerbach, a 49-year-old book publicist. Her total cholesterol was 229, and her doctor threatened medication if she didn’t lose 40 pounds. Weight Watchers helped her shed 26 pounds, but then she hit a plateau. She hoped serious exercise would be the key to the last 15 pounds; five 40-minute walking workouts on a treadmill every week hadn’t made a dent in her weight. But she felt out of place in the gym and was scared of intense workouts.

As for me, I’d always used exercise to balance a love of food. But like Marcia and Elizabeth, I felt as if the complexities of midlife were conspiring against my waistline. Back surgery, complications from pregnancy, and other conditions combined with motherhood and long work hours meant less exercise, more stress eating, and more pounds — 50 of them. By my 40th birthday, I had little muscle tone, a chocolate habit, and the return of some back pain.

The four of us met with Jan Griscom, a trainer at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center, one morning last July. Instead of focusing on physical benefits, as she might have done with a younger crowd, Jan started with our mind-set: We each had years of experience trying to get fit and not succeeding, so our expectation was that we’d fail again. "Starting today," she said, "we are going to let go of the guilt and start fresh. As of right now, think of yourselves as active women."

Embracing Exercise

Four hours of exercise a week? It sounded like too much until Jan broke it down: one weight-training session, one weekend outing, and two other alternatives — walks, yoga classes, whatever. The key, she said, was to make exercise a habit. (To try the some of the exercises Jan recommends for midlife, see "The Workout" on page 5.)

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