Staying strong through tough times

Heather Ford 6fiz86ql3ua Unsplash

When Jennifer unexpectedly lost her job in her 60s she was devastated. But she found the strength to deal with it from an unexpected source.

Losing her job was confronting in a range of ways. There was the loss of income, the slog of writing applications, and the fear that she’d have to dumb herself down to get anything at all.

“I intuitively know to take care of myself mentally and physically through this stage,” she emailed, “but the temptation to hit the bottle, eat junk food and sleep is mighty strong. And the pull to collapse and weep like a loser rears its ugly head most days.”

She was lucky in some respects. She has a supportive family, including a partner who made sure she was eating well.

But another major support — maybe a surprising one — was exercise.

“I’m sure many women feel this way when in a bit of a crisis, so I’m pleased I’m keeping up gym classes,” she said.

A gym might not be everyone’s idea of support, but it’s worth noting what it was about that environment that made a difference.

First, it provided routine and structure at a time when she’d lost those.

Second, the staff were friendly and encouraging, so walking in there felt safe and familiar.

But it’s the third aspect that’s rarely appreciated: exercise gave her strength, mental as well as physical.

Thanks to her group circuit classes and Reformer Pilates, she was able to say “At 61, I’ve never been stronger”.

London journalist and author Poorna Bell has written about the way physical strength builds our sense of capability and confidence.

She’s now 42, but in her late 30s her husband suicided, and while struggling through her grief, she decided that to manage life on her own she needed to get physically stronger.

She felt uncomfortable in mainstream gyms for the same reason many women do. They seemed to focus on calorie burning and weight loss, and be designed for young, slim, blond women in lycra. Poorna didn’t fit that image; she’s Indian.

So she hunted for alternatives, took the idea of becoming strong further than most, and became a competitive powerlifter. *

As she explains, a stronger body can help us deal with the tough parts of life. It builds our self-belief as well as helping calm our minds.

You realise you’re stronger than you think, she says.

We know that muscle is use-it-or-lose-it, and that getting stronger helps prevent injury, falls, illness and general age-related decline. But perhaps there’s not enough talk about the mental benefits.

We don’t, of course, need to take up powerlifting or even gym classes to achieve this, though it’s important to note that gyms have changed and many provide programs for older members.

There are lots of ways to build strength, depending on what’s available and where you’re starting from. If you’re kicking off your strength building journey you might try yoga, adding a hill or two to your neighbourhood walk, or doing bodyweight exercises at home.

For Jennifer, those gym classes have served her well. She’s hung in and is interviewing for some excellent full-time jobs. No dumbing down required.


Photo Source: Heather Ford, Unsplash

*Poorna Bell has written about becoming a powerlifter in her 2021 book Stronger: changing everything I knew about women’s strength.


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