Gillian White – MSc, PhD Candidate, Department of Exercise Sciences, University of Toronto
The Real Forever Fit Science’s of Canada
For the last couple of years, my mom has been doing exercise classes with some other ladies of her vintage in the converted basement of Patti’s house. My memory of Patti from my childhood was of a no-nonsense gym teacher who looked like she could sprint the track and kick your ass without a bead of sweat, so it didn’t surprise me to hear my mom saying that “her muscles were so sore because of that Patti Campbell”.
To get a first-hand look at Patti’s classes and learn more about Patti’s approach and outlook on providing high intensity exercise classes for older adults (women), I laced up and joined my mom for one of her famed 6:30am classes.
The first thing I noticed when I walked downstairs, was that this was no joke. Patti has a full set up of equipment you’d expect to find in a downtown fitness studio, complete with boxes, TRXs, free weights, hurdle bars, and medicine balls. Juxtaposing this observation was noting how happy the ladies seemed to be there! Though, it was sort of high-energy excitement that had a thread of anxiety as they traded stories of last night’s dinner parties while waiting to hear what Patti had in store for them (or, rather, “us” I should say).
The workout itself was like what you would find any 20- or 30-something doing at and urban fitness studio. With top 40 remixes playing in the background and a cardio and mobility warm-up, the bulk of the workout is a mix of Tabata sets interspersed between strength circuits with no muscle left untouched.
Speaking after the workout, Patti tells me that her objectives when she’s developing her workouts are to ensure there’s enough variety to keep it interesting and to activate all the major muscle groups through functional movements.
You can expect a lot of squats, lunges, step-ups, core and upper body stability, as well as upper body strength. While the exercises and intensity were on par with what you’d see at U of T at 5pm, what was more impressive – while Patti ensures that each exercise has modifications to reduce difficulty and prevent loss of form or intensity – I didn’t see anyone use these (and we did burpees! And push-ups! And chest flies! …I could go on).
This class and the mentality the belies it fit so nicely with the motives for Forever Fit Science –
1. There’s no reason you need to jettison intense exercise with age
2. Training like you’re young lets your body continue to function like it’s young, allowing you to keep up with life as you age
3. It can be genuinely enjoyable!
In part informing the exercise selection of her workouts, Patti notes that strength in general (particularly upper body strength in women), seems to be ignored in the activities that one gravitates towards with age (think golf, walking, cycling), but this really doesn’t have to be the case. Just looking at the arms of these ladies proves that point!
Toned arms aside, when asked about the goals that she has for her participants, Patti says she has no specific goals for them but when she hears someone say they’re thankful for all the squats because they had a near miss on the ski hill and were saved by their new-found leg strength or other translations of her workout classes into the improving the women’s function in their everyday life, she counts it as a win.
I can’t imagine my late Nana making a backseat recovery on a ski hill. I just can’t. (Granted, Nana didn’t ski, but that’s beside the point!) And this perfectly exemplifies the value of this Fast-Twitch Grandma movement – staying functionally younger and changing what it means to be a “grandma”.
Related Article: How HIIT Changes Our Body
Outside of the physical (and cognitive – remembering the 12-exercise circuit made my brain pulse) benefits of these type of higher intensity strength classes, I think one of the most important elements of the format of this class is the group element. Speaking for my own mom, getting up at 6am to do multiple sets of strength exercises with short enough rests to keep your heart pounding is not really her modus operandi.
When I asked her and some of the other ladies in the class why they come and what keep them coming back, the major themes emerged of joining because either they needed some new fitness activity or because they knew someone in the class, and sticking with it because they see and feel benefits and they’ve become a tight little exercise gang.
They note the importance of the social element, the accountability to
a) show up and,
b) work to your best ability, combined with the enjoyment that comes from socializing as a part of your workout.
These themes were discussed in Dr. Cassie Pheonix’s research detailing the experiences of women in the U.K. participating in a running group so it’s not a novelty or a one-off. Women like doing things together – and that include burpees and mountain climbers!
Another important note is that outside of these classes, these ladies weren’t sedentary. Tennis, golf, snowshoeing/hiking, and other lower intensity fitness classes were common place, but none of them seem to come from an overly competitive or high-intensity background. All to say, a base level of fitness helps, but you don’t have to be an IronWoman to get into high intensity exercise in your retirement years.
Related Article: Those Who Run Together, Stay Together
Takeaways From Patti’s Class
Mix it up – a variety of exercises keeps it interesting and builds the whole body.
Make it functional – squats, lunges, planks – these are fundamental exercises for a reason – namely, they mimic things we do in real-life that we’d like to keep doing well as we age.
Harness the social power – commitment to the group translates into commitment to yourself. You’re less likely to find (and use!) an excuse, you’ll work harder because everyone else is working hard, and you’ll look forward to going to the gym (or wherever your exercise takes place). Let the group lift the burden of motivating yourself!
As a parting word, I’ll just say that this workout really surprised me: the format, the exercises, the fact that the ladies seemed to have an easier time with push-ups than me (I swear I work out a lot too) – it was all quite impressive.
Patti might just make a Forever Fit Science out of me yet!
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