65 year old Don Sher has set national and regional bench press records in power lifting. His wife Kinga is preparing for her first powerlifting meet. Bill Swafford, a 52 year old former competitive powerlifter, who’s won numerous national, state and local level trophies and traveled to Russia as a coach to other powerlifters and his wife Lori, herself a state record holder haven’t let injuries or the passage of time sideline them.

Ed Cook is 53 and was featured in World Physique magazine for transformation of the month. He started because his doctor told him to take care of his body or die young. Now he’s placing in the top three at bodybuilding competitions. He’s quoted in the May 6 issue of Ironman magazine online as saying “Be consistent! Be intense! Become your goal!”

What they all have in common is their quest to redefine the meaning of the aging process. I asked them to give me their pointers to help others who might want to escape ordinary and have people half their age looking at them in envy and disbelief or maybe just be able to enjoy the retirement they’ve been looking forward to their entire working life. Here’s what they said:

Take Responsibility for Your Health

You need to be aware, says Don Sher as his number one health tip, “be aware of your body and your health.” This is sound advice according to the Congress of California Seniors website, www.seniors.org. “The most important thing we can do, healthwise, is to assume responsibility for our own well being – to adopt healthy lifestyles that include eating properly, exercising regularly, minimizing our use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs – and developing a healthy, positive attitude. We also need to be informed health care consumers – to learn about old and new ways of staying healthy and disease-free. The more informed we are, the more healthy we are likely to be.

Don’t Let Other People Talk You Into Being Over The Hill

I don’t feel any different than I did at 35, I’m not like some 65 year old codger just barely making it down the road,”Sher says with a laugh. “Other people put that label on you but I want to be fresh and vital as long as possible.” Becky Holman who writes for Ironman Magazine, quotes from research by John Robbins, author How To Live To 100, “He discovered that people in those communities[where they live to be 100] actually look forward to growing old, as they expect to be healthy, respected and considered wise. Other studies suggest that negative thoughts about aging can undermine a person’s health”. So it seems that attitude and how we approach the aging process makes a huge difference in whether we enjoy our golden years or slowly decline and fade away.

According to 74 year old bodybuilder John Pasco, “First off, the idea that people must use their bones, muscles and nerves less as they age is backward. The human body is a wonderful creation that responds favorably to the challenges given it. That is, when you exert your muscles, bones or nerves beyond what they can handle and then rest a bit, the body goes to work to get the muscles, bones or nerves ready to meet the next similar challenge. In other words, they grow and improve when they need to. The contrary also holds: If you don’t require your body to do more, it will become even less able. That being the truth, contrary to the old myth, people shouldn’t take it easy as the years mount. Rather, they should work out, challenging their body to respond, as it will, with growth.”

Bill Swafford puts it more bluntly. “Don’t never give up or quit and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something cause you’ve reached a certain point in your life or you’re a certain age or a woman or anything!”

Eat Healthy Foods

I think one of the most important things is fish oil, that helps your mental acuity and lubricates your joints,” Lori Swafford says. “Take plenty of vitamins. I’ve been reading that you shouldn’t eat until you’re full. Eat to sustain yourself, don’t do it as a form of entertainment.”

I think the less you weigh as you get older, the longer your lifespan will be. Biggest change for me though is eating more fruits and vegetables, higher fiber, less red meat. My goal at New Years was to lose 30 lbs, I’ve lost 17

Make Sure You Have The Whole Picture

“You need to be balanced,”says Kinga Sher. “Stay balanced between work, play, social life and spiritual involvement.” Don agrees but also says diet and nutrition are big factors. “I don’t smoke, I drink moderately and I eat a low fat high protein diet. And I take a bunch of supplements, fish oils, vitamins, glucosamine, garlic and of course protein shakes to help with the weight lifting.” Sher says all of this is necessary because he views each one of these as parts of a larger picture. “It’s like a pyramid all of this stuff, comes together to give you a good foundation to build on. All of it’s important.” In addition the American College of Sports Medicine says, “lifestyle changes, such as the adequate intake of calcium from diet and supplementation, cessation of smoking, and moderation in alcohol consumption are other cost-effective alternatives to drug therapy”.

So it seems that if you want to live a long, fulfilled life a comprehensive lifestyle approach is the way to go.

Find Activities You Enjoy

Many older adults slow down as they age. Kinga Sher says that is exactly the wrong approach. “I do Curves three times a week and bench press and deadlift once a week. But I also like to swim, hike and go for walks.” The issue is again balance. Kinga says that exercise helps her be more social because it give her the energy to go visit friends and family. “It’s a lot easier to hang out socially when you’re physically healthy because your energy level increases. When you’re not healthy you don’t want to go anywhere. You want to just sit in front of the TV,” she says. “Another key to longevity, according to Robbins’ research, is a ‘deep sense of human connection … people continually helping one another, believing in one another and enjoying spending time with each other.’

Bill and Lori have found pool workouts to be enjoyable and even therapeutic. “Even in the gym we point out to older people that no matter how bad it hurts if you don’t do something you’ll be worse off. Pool work is important though if you’re starting out because it gives you support but a good workout. I can run in a pool but I can’t run on the ground because of my knees. A lot of people will come by and snicker, but they’re the ones who’ve never tried it. It’s good for arthritic joints, builds up your stamina and breathing.”

Don’t Avoid Strength Training

Neither Don or Kinga has had any weight training related injury beyond minor aches and pains. This is probably because unlike younger exercisers, they leave their egos at home and actually follow safety advice. The website infoaging.org says, “An Australian study of postmenopausal women divided them into three groups. One group engaged in strength training, one in fitness, and one no exercise. All were given calcium supplements. Though both the strength and fitness group experienced increases in their bone mineral density, the strength group had the greater increase in bone density at the vulnerable hip joint.” This means you can fight bone loss with more than just calcium supplements. When I took the Fitness Specialist certification at the Cooper Institute in Dallas years ago, we were told that research was finding that resistance training had many benefits for older adults. That is confirmed by another study cited on infoaging.org, “Yale researchers assigned half of a group of 188 frail elderly to receive physical therapy at home and the other half to a control group that received no therapy, only an array of health-related educational materials. All participants were 75 years of age or older and living at home, and most had a disability. The exercise program lasted six months, with participants asked to continue the exercises on their own. After seven months, the physical therapy group’s average disability rating score was 45% lower than average scores in the control group, whose physical health declined during the course of the study.”

Take Advantage Of The Extra Time You Have

“If I wasn’t retired, I couldn’t do this., says Don Sher, “You can’t work 50, 60 hours a week then go home and still go in the gym and work out. I’d be too tired, now that I’m retired it makes it possible to put the time in to strengthen and take care of my body.”

Studies are being done that support Sher’s claim. According to another article on seniorjournal.com a report in the January 28 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals claims, “Individuals who are physically active during their leisure time appear to be biologically younger than those with sedentary lifestyles”.

Have A Variety of Fitness Options

If you do have to work around health issues, there are countless ways to get moving and you may find that as you increase activity levels, you are then able to do more.

According to a recent Arthritis Care and Research study quoted at seniorjournal.com “Regular exercise is an effective way to “significantly” improve and manage arthritis pain.” So you may start out gardening then progress to daily walks and then join a local dance group or tai chi exercise class. You might even try Granny Basketball. Whatever you do, you need to start somewhere.

Be Pro Active About Living A Full Life

Don Sher was already a fairly active person when he started having health problems. Instead of slowing down, he increased his activity level. “I got back in the gym a couple of years ago because I was having issues with blood pressure due to genetics. I wanted to manage those issues, I was already eating right and exercising but I decided to up my exercise regimen to help manage my problems.

Lori Swafford says, “I think the more active you stay, the longer you’ll live. they’ve done studies that prove that activities ward off alzheimer’s.” Although the Swaffords are not yet retired, they are staying active so they can enjoy retirement when it comes. “I’m only 44 so I got a ways to go. I try to keep active, I’m training for a triathalon, biking, swimming.”

I taught a strength training class for seniors at Chattanooga Fitness Center in Chattanooga, TN for several years and the most vibrant members of the class were the ones who had the busiest schedules. They showed up for aerobics, chair aerobics, senior strength training and after class they always had somewhere else to go, some other activity to occupy them and they all seemed to enjoy life more and more each day.

Don’t Let Physical Limitations Stop You

“Even if you have issues you can find something. Just don’t overdo it. Listen to your body.” Sher is passionate about that with good reason, he has a list of ailments, all non weight training related that would keep most people from exercising, let alone from bench pressing well over his bodyweight. “I’ve got an injured finger from an accident, I can’t deadlift because I’ve inherited a bad back, my dad had a bad back and I’ve got one too.” None of that seems to even slow him down. When I saw him at the North Georgia Barbell Meet he and the other senior lifters pushed each other as hard or harder than the younger lifters. One lifter, had suffered a stroke and would limp on his cane to the bench press station, sit down and open up the fingers of his frozen right hand with his left so he could grab the bar.

Bill Swafford could definitely be excused for sitting back in his easy chair after a lifetime of hard work. He’s had four hernia surgeries a knee surgery and faces possible knee replacement. “I’ve been walking around on cement floors for about 20 years so that’s part of why I’ve got problems with my knees and ankles”. But Bill has a different attitude. “I just thank the good Lord I can get in there and piddle. I mean anybody can stay home and sit on the couch.”

That sort of refusal to allow life’s obstacles to stop you keeps Don and Kinga Sher; Bill and Lori Swafford and Ed Cook from fading away. They violently refuse to shuffle off into the night because society says it’s almost time to pack it in. “Their lives are vibrant, colorful affairs fit for movie screens and your wildest dreams.

“My quote would be fight aging as hard as you can,” Lori Swafford said with a laugh, “And I’ll call you when I’m eighty!”













Recommended Reading

Robbins, John. Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived People. Sept. 2006.

John Greaves is a freelance writer living in the North Georgia area. He is passionate about fitness & wellness especially youth and senior resistance training. When he worked fulltime in the field, John was…  View profile

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