Women 50 and older build strength through a weight-lifting program tailored to their age

Pumped up to shape attitudes

January 26, 2007|By JONI GUHNE | JONI GUHNE,Special to The Sun

Eavesdrop on a conversation among women of a certain age, and you're likely to hear one of them say, "Fifty is the new 35." But how do women maintain youthful vigor into their fifth, sixth, seventh and later decades?

Anne Arundel Medical Center is offering a modern alternative, StrongWomen, a national physical fitness regimen of weight training for women age 50 and older.

It was founded by Miriam E. Nelson, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition and associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University. She has written several best sellers, including Strong Women, Strong Bones, Strong Women Stay Young and Strong Women Stay Slim.

"StrongWomen brings lasting benefits to women," said Karen London, coordinator for women's education programs at AAMC who introduced the program at the Annapolis hospital last spring and taught the class until recently. "Beyond the obvious health benefits - increased metabolism, stronger bones and improved coordination - strength training has the potential to transform women's lives."

Participants take twice-weekly classes with like-minded women, without the pressure of competing with what one class member calls the "skinny minnies" who populate many health clubs and gyms.

Women at midlife have different emotional and physical needs than their younger counterparts, London said. "They enjoy a class where the instructor and the participants are all on the same journey, and StrongWomen offers this.

The program is just what Norma Uemura, 69, had been looking for. The Millersville woman has long relied on yoga and Pilates to keep in shape. She once volunteered for a study exploring the balance problems of "older" women, expecting to show researchers that not all seniors had balance issues by standing solidly on one foot. Ironically, she was told that she was too old for the study.

The retired Army occupational therapist, who returned to college to earn a degree in art history, said she is excited about the StrongWomen program. "I'm learning about basic weight training and the importance of maintaining strength and how it affects our physiology."

Anne Harrod, AAMC's StrongWomen instructor, said she loves seeing the change in participants' attitudes and physical being.

Harrod, who formerly worked in the corporate world and now teaches a combined class of yoga and Pilates at AAMC, said, "The program appealed to me as a woman, a wife, Mom, sister. Because we take on so many roles, we compromise our fitness goals.

"It's OK not to be a size 6, to be a size 16, but to be healthier," she said.

Each class begins with stretching. Harrod speaks a quiet admonition, "Focus on breathing, reflect within, your eyes gazing on your heart." Students follow her through an hour of weight routines that include lifts for the entire body, each series of four moves repeated 10 times.

"I've always pursued physical fitness," said participant Janet Henery of Annapolis. "I've never done anything with muscle training, it's so boring to try to do it at home, but I took the very first class they offered last spring."

Henery, a registered nurse for 34 years, is part of the team of "seasoned nurses" who answer the hospital's telephone triage help line called askAAMC. She also works at the free medical clinic at the Stanton Community Center in Annapolis.

Why does she include weight training in her busy life? "As I get older, I want to have a strong body," said Henery, 56. "I want to retire and enjoy life."

For optimum results, women are encouraged to practice their strength training routine three times a week.

The fees, averaging $10 to $12 per session, are intentionally reasonable as dictated by the program's designer, Harrod said. "I will not teach in a for-profit situation. My commitment is to the program," she said.

The week after Harrod was introduced to the StrongWomen program, she hopped on a plane to Boston, met with the program's founder and earned her certification as an instructor. Her enthusiasm is fueled by having grown up in Mumbai, India, where women were not allowed to teach classes such as yoga, one of that country's most popular pastimes.

StrongWomen classes meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday in the Wellness Center in the Sajak Building on Medical Parkway in Annapolis. Classes are limited to 10 members, and teachers are trained to assess students' capabilities, said Harrod, who circulates through the class, correcting one student's form, encouraging another's progress.

As the class winds down, she says quietly, "Honor your body. Release all self-criticism, things that hold you back. Be well."

For more information, contact the AAMC Women's Education Department at 443-481-6122.

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