Think you are too old to do workouts in the gym? Think again!

Chen Huizhi
A 68-year-old Shanghai resident has completely changed her life with an exercise regime that trimmed her weight and improved her body tone. 
Chen Huizhi
Shot by Hu Jun. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou.

“A peach bottom, ant waist and swan neck.”

Chen Jifang, 68, isn’t talking about some 25-year-old model. She’s talking about herself. Though her physique may not quite match that ideal, she has undergone an extraordinary change in the last two years.

With sweat and perseverance in a local gym, the Minhang District resident shed 12 kilos, toned her muscles and bid farewell to belly flab. She says she never felt better.

Chen dispels the notion that gym workouts are only for the young. Her online videos of easy workouts on an ab wheel have drawn “oohs” and “ahs” from netizens.

Chen, a Shanghai native, worked as a food shop assistant before retirement.

“My health went downhill after I gave birth to my daughter,” she said. “I would say I was constantly living between life and death and always in low spirits.”

She did enjoy playing badminton until bad knees forced her to give the game up. Lacking exercise, she began putting on kilos.

A physical exam in 2018 was a wake-up call. It showed she had hyperlipemia, high blood pressure, excess uric acid and a fatty liver.

“The doctor told me to move my body or it would get worse for me,” she said.

She sought advice from Zhang Li, a woman who owns a fitness studio about 4 kilometers from her home, and decided to undertake a fitness course.

“I asked for a private coach because I always trust professionals,” Chen said.

Liu Luyao, a 30-year-old former armyman with a decade of experience in fitness coaching, took her on. She was his oldest client. People over 60 are a rare sight in gyms, he said.

“She looked unhealthy physically when I first met her,” he said. “Badly injured knees and knee pains, and weak kinetic ability.”

Liu said her first training sessions focused on mobilizing her joints and muscles. Her years of badminton playing had left her with a slightly hunched back and unbalanced body strength.

After 24 one-hour classes with Liu, Chen was advised to take group classes because she was physically prepared for more intense training.

“I lost 5 kilos after the first month, and after three months, I was a changed person,” Chen said. “People often admire me, as if I had to endure something terrible to look like this now. But I enjoyed every minute.”

She is now standing up straighter, adding 2 centimeters to her height and is able to do deadlifts with a 45-kilogram barbell. Liu said the feat is remarkable for a person of her age because many people in their 30s and 40s can’t lift that weight or do it with such precise technical detail.

Diet was also a part of her program. Zhang, who is also a nutrition consultant at the studio, took on that task. She also said Chen was her oldest-ever client.

“At her age, food needs to be easily absorbed by the body, and she needs extra nutrition for her bones and eyes,” she said.

Nowadays, Chen works out two to three hours in the gym every day, with a dietary lunch there. She walks to the gym and back home.

Chen had a physical check in summer last year. It showed she no longer had a fatty liver and her blood pressure and blood fat levels were stabilized. She has become a partner in the gym and runs a health consulting firm.

Many of her clients are senior citizens with neck pain, strained lumbar muscles and other bone and muscle ailments. However, few of them are interested in regular gym workouts.

“My fellow retirees usually would rather take part in ‘commercial events’ where they can get dozens of eggs for free than invest in their health,” she said. “They have yet to understand that money spent in improving physical fitness could eventually pay off in fewer hospital bills.”

How to exercise appropriately

Zhang Xin, a specialist at Shanghai Medmotion Rehabilitation Clinic who specializes in geriatrics and athletic orthopedic injuries, said Chen sets an example for senior citizens who are often uninformed about the benefits of regular physical training.

“The human body has great potential, and even patients who have suffered rather serious heart disease can restore their physical activeness,” she said. “If you train regularly, your muscles will grow after two to three months, and your cardio-pulmonary function will be improved after one to two months.”

Older people often have pain in the knees, usually not from ligament injuries but from loss of muscle mass, she said. In 80 to 90 percent of the cases, the pain can be reduced by training the muscles around the knees.

Here is Zhang’s advice for senior citizens:

• Find out if you have any diseases of the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys. If your blood pressure is 160 or higher, you should avoid intense physical activity until you bring your blood pressure down. If you’re diagnosed with heart disease, you need to seek advice from your doctor and try rehabilitation on professional training equipment at hospitals.

• Take it step by step and don’t overwork your body. It’s recommended that a healthy person do aerobics at least five times a week and at least 30 minutes per session of mid-range intensity. That is, when you’re slightly panting but can still talk normally. If you’re able to monitor your heart rate during training, your heart rate usually shouldn’t surpass 130 beats per minute. Progress slowly in raising the intensity of training.

• Don’t ignore pain. Your training should be painless. If you have pain in the knees even when you’re not working out, you can allow slight pain when you start out and continue after two or three weeks if the pain doesn’t grow stronger. Otherwise you should reduce the intensity of your training.

• Improve your balance and build your strength. As people grow older, their body balance deteriorates and their bone mass drops. To prevent falling and bone fractures, which are not unusual in older people, balance training by means of tai chi, yoga and badminton, for example, is recommended. Besides jogging and swimming, strength building is very important for the health of older people but often ignored. Start from 20 to 30 percent of the maximum weight you can take and add more progressively.

• Train under professional guidance. People who haven’t done training for a long time usually have weak body control, and working out under guidance can reduce the chance of injuries.

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