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Fitness culture is so ubiquitous for millennial and Gen Z women that it's almost impossible to open Instagram without scrolling past a Gymshark outfit or booty fitness guide. If you’re not following at least one #fitspo guru or exercising in some sort of way, it's easy to feel out of touch; there’s a huge pressure these days for young women to look and feel fit.
But for our parents' generation, protein supplements and Lululemon Align leggings weren’t the status quo. Aside from Jane Fonda’s "feel the burn" home workouts, fitness as we know it today was a niche reserved for bodybuilders and professional athletes.
Although fitness has become accessible to the point of compulsion – the UK fitness market alone is estimated to be worth £5bn and one in every seven Brits has a gym membership – from how it’s advertised, we’d be forgiven for believing it’s a young person’s game. But the benefits of regular exercise don’t stop when you’re older; in fact, the NHS’ exercise guidelines are the same for all adults from 19 to 64. Refinery29 UK spoke to three women about how they discovered fitness in their 50s.
Hiromi, started doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu at 57
"I had been active previously but just doing weights and things, but I'm terrible at self-motivating so it all kind of fell by the wayside. Then this MMA gym opened near my flat and I discovered classes are great for me because I don't need self-motivation, I just need to turn up on time. I was sure it wasn't for me, I was too self-conscious about looking silly and I didn't even know about Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). I did it almost as a dare from one of the coaches. He told me everyone should do jiu-jitsu and I told him I wasn't comfortable with the idea of being crushed by other people. He replied that in real life, panicking when something like that happens is the worst thing you can do. Jiu-jitsu will train you to know what to do if such a thing were to ever happen. But I did it pretty much to show him that in spite of what he said, I still didn't like it.
It was awful. I was the oldest in the class and the smallest. I had no idea what was happening and, on that first day, I couldn't even do the warmups. Even though it took me about 18 months to actually feel comfortable going to class, it never occurred to me to quit. I'm stubborn and hated the idea of being defeated by it. But also there was something there that kept me coming back, it was the sheer novelty of doing something that I'd never tried. I feel like you lose a lot of the worry of looking silly as you get older, making it easier to try new things.
In a way it changed my perspective on fitness. I found something that I'm reasonably sure I can continue until I'm very old. Also I'm starting to lift weights a little bit which is also really good for you as you get older, but I do it to support my jiu-jitsu. I also do yoga and pilates and both are good for recovery. It gives me a goal for the fitness rather than just a vague 'I like to be fit'. I was never going to do a race or Tough Mudder or anything that you would have to train for, and jiu-jitsu is kind of a lifelong goal as opposed to a single event. I don't need to compete, I'm doing it as a challenge for me.
It is a wonderful feeling to be in shape, to know you're strong and you're learning and progressing. It's hard to find something as you get older that you need to learn from scratch and it’s very humbling. I love that I can go to different gyms when I travel and experience different classes, and the jiu-jitsu community is super friendly. In addition it is a great break from running my business because you can't think about anything else and I emerge from class with my mind reset and ready to tackle new challenges."
Julie, started running at 54
"My daughter trained to be a PT and kept saying, 'You need to run, you need to run' and told me about a running group for people to learn to run, so I thought I’d try it. That was two years ago! I did my first 5k then. Since then I’ve done five 5ks, and every time I’ve done it I’ve gotten a better PB, so I’ve actually got better and better.
I did feel like quitting, and after the first time I was so tired I thought, There’s no way I’m doing that again, but my husband and some friends told me that if I kept going I’d feel better and better and better, and you do. It’s gradual, but step by step you feel fitter and the first one is always the hardest. The first week I was really tired, it knocked me out all weekend and I thought, Is this for me? and then the second time I felt great, and the third time I felt even better and had even more energy.
Running is most definitely the way forward, I feel a lot fitter… I think I’m fitter now than when I was younger! When I was younger I was so unfit. When I had my children I got into step aerobics for a bit, but basically I didn’t do much to keep fit until my 50s. I disagree that fitness is a young person’s game, the majority of people at these park runs are my age."
Linda, trained for a triathlon at 55
"I was at work and it was a blisteringly hot day, and I thought it would be lovely to go swimming. I thought, You know what I really want to do when this shift is over? Swim in the open water. But I’d never done anything like that before, so in my break I googled 'open water swimming' and I found the name of a trainer. When I met up with her she told me, 'You do realise I’m not a personal trainer, I’m a triathlon coach?' and I didn’t know what the difference was. I just told her I wanted to swim. So I trained and competed in two aquathlons, and in 2016 I did a triathlon. I had to learn everything because I didn’t know how to do any of it! I didn’t feel nervous but as months went on I felt out of place because I didn’t have friends who cycled or swam or ran, and didn’t know anyone who did, so I had to do the whole thing on my own. When I started running I couldn’t even bend my feet properly, and when I first started swimming one day I came home and had such a headache because I’d swallowed so much chlorinated water that my head hurt. But I never thought about quitting, I just pushed past it.
I come from a different generation, and when I was younger no one really worked out. This whole movement towards fitness, which I think is fantastic, wasn’t there for women like me, it was only for people who were serious athletes. I think the environment has changed and I’ve noticed that women of my age are more inclined to keep fit, but it’s easier for younger women because it’s so integrated into their daily lives. My daughter runs every day and is in a frisbee squad at university, so for her being active is like breathing. It wasn’t like that for me at her age, there weren’t facilities and there wasn’t the mindset nor the outlook, but now that these things do exist I think it has made a big difference to women my age and it’s made a colossal difference to me. Not just in terms of being physically fit, but in knowing that I can run around a bloody forest in the middle of nowhere and be okay.
My focus has changed now. I have a plant-based diet but eat more protein, I keep an eye on my health and I’m regularly active. I understand now how important it is not to have a sedentary lifestyle, which is the biggest inhibitor for women’s health over 50. There’s no question that physical fitness means you’re mentally alert, and now I run my own magazine as well as the Richmond Rugby Business Club."