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Hire an Athletic Trainer When You're 82? Why Not?

Seeing the bodybuilders and the elders intermingled at the gym is encouraging and demystifying

By Francine Toder

The gyms were abandoned or closed during the long COVID pandemic, but now they're once again full of gym rats and old-timers. Seeing the bodybuilders and the elders intermingled is encouraging because it defies the myth that gyms are for the young and fit.

An older adult working out in a gym. Next Avenue, personal trainer for older adult
Sue doing standing push-ups

The very serious lifters (sometimes called gym rats) and the preserving-what-I've-got folks have their reasons for being there. I'll leave someone else to describe the twenty and thirtysomething athletes' motives, but I'm an expert at understanding the 60+ set. I'm one of them. And at 82, I just hired a trainer for the first time in my long life.

At 82, I just hired a trainer for the first time in my long life.

I wasn't sure what to expect, and I was equally unclear about my reasoning when I made that decision. However, I was in reasonably good shape, enjoying hiking, Pilates, and yoga.

But I was somewhat intimidated by the range of machines at my current gym and the young, gym rat types who hovered around, seemingly guarding them, making my approach feel threatening somehow.

Since the gym offered a free one-hour consult with one of the trainers, whose photo and bio were displayed near a sign-up sheet, I took a chance with the young-looking woman who appeared quite buff.

She described herself as a bodybuilder. She also had an educational background in exercise physiology which I hoped made her an expert in helping others find their exercise bliss.

Introduced to New Exercises

By the time my session was up, she had me doing 20 squats while holding a 10-lb. weight, something I had never done before. For at least ten days, my thighs reminded me that I had achieved this goal! She also took me around and introduced me to so many machines that I needed a refresher course the following week to find them again.

She also found a way to carve space for me at the highly coveted machines, and I tried not to notice whether or not the aforementioned gym rats were scowling at me for displacing them.


By now, I was hooked and had signed up for four one-hour sessions a week apart, hopefully giving my body time to recover between onslaughts.

Surprisingly, after the first week, my muscle pain subsided. Just as that was happening, my trainer announced that the weights needed to be adjusted as I mastered each level. As I finally settled into a routine, I needed to upend it! I guess you can't trick the body into complacency.

As I finally settled into a routine, I needed to upend it! I guess you can't trick the body into complacency.

Since I'm a psychologist, it didn't take me long to be curious about why people do what they do, and I learned that my trainer was working at the gym while she contemplated her next steps in life.

Because I am nosey and like asking personal questions until they are no longer appreciated, I learned that my trainer plans to apply to graduate school to study exercise physiology and kinesiology

Yet, since she was kind enough to talk about her life goals, I didn't want to push my luck in any more intrusive ways, so I decided to shift my questioning to her older clients.

She told me that 80% of her clientele was over 60, which intrigued me. So I wasn't alone in my quest for the later-in-life buff. I wondered about their motivation. Was it the same as mine or different? So, of course, I needed to find a way to talk to them. 

Like me, my trainer has an obligation to keep her client's information confidential. Getting around that limitation, I asked if any of her clients would be willing to talk with me. I also looked around the gym for likely prospects who might be open to talking.

One older woman, thin and wiry but very strong, was just about to lift a barbell with what looked to be two 50-pound weights attached at each end. Since staring is not cool, and I couldn't photograph her without her permission, the moment passed. I've been looking for her ever since.

Current Research On Older Adults Working Out

There was a time when elders with gym memberships would have been considered strange. Remember Jack LaLanne? He was fit and strong into his nineties but was seen as odd. 

An older adult working out in a gym. Next Avenue, personal trainer for older adult
Francine Toder on an upper body machine

Today there are numerous athletic adults doing marathon runs or climbing mountains into their nineties. The value of exercise for enhanced psychological and cognitive fitness, leading to a longer life, is now fact rather than fancy.

And here are some facts: 

First, studies show that physical activity, including strength training with weights, and brisk walking (which could take place on the gym's elliptical or treadmill), enhances cognitive functioning and emotional well-being. 

Because working out at a gym or with a trainer also checks the box for social contact, this is a plus for healthy aging. And learning how to use machines at the gym is an activity that stimulates problem-solving, also a good tonic for the aging brain.

What I Learned From A Few Older Adults At The Gym

Sue retired from her choral music teaching position before the COVID lockdown. Then her world changed dramatically. Her life partner died in 2020, which made pandemic isolation all the more difficult emotionally. When the gyms were opened again, she felt lots of aches and pains and limited flexibility. 

Thinking that going to the gym would provide a distraction, Sue reasoned that working with a trainer would be even more effective. She could learn a more varied exercise program while using the correct body posture with the machines.

Over coffee at a local café, Sue eagerly explained that working with a trainer met her goals on several levels. Her trainer, Kristin, keeps her motivated to work out three times a week. And with some delight, Sue said, "after I started working with Kristin, my aches and pains went away." 

An unexpected benefit was the social contact she had been missing. Although Sue was pre-diabetic when she began her training, her blood health has also improved. While one of her goals was to lose weight, that has yet to happen. But the inches are coming off, which is a good start.

Because working out at a gym or with a trainer also checks the box for social contact, this is a plus for healthy aging.

If ever there was an exemplar of physical fitness at 80, it's Tom. This retired civil engineer has taken his workouts seriously since his mid-thirties though his emphasis has changed. In his thirties and forties, his focus was on his physique and getting enough exercise to offset an occupation that included lots of sitting. 

"At forty I didn't see a need for stretching," he said. These days flexibility and balance training are his number one concern. Along the way, Tom started working with a trainer willing to come to his house during COVID three times a week. It became an early morning ritual that "jumpstarts the rest of my day." 

When the gym reopened, Tom added another trainer, with an intuitive style, for two additional morning sessions. He says about his workouts and training sessions, "it has become a religion." But, like Sue, he feels he likes the commitment to a trainer, which keeps him motivated and on track.

At 80, Tom is the picture of good health. He has no medical problems, aside from the lingering effects of shingles which he had twenty years ago. Moreover, he can bench press 270 pounds, much more than his body weight. 

Not bad for an octogenarian who tries to "set a living example for younger people to emulate," including his four adult grandchildren.

Francine Toder, Ph.D. is an emeritus faculty member of California State University, Sacramento and is a clinical psychologist retired from private practice. She is also the author of The Vintage Years: Finding your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty. Her most recent book is Inward Traveler: 51 Ways to Explore the World Mindfully.  Her extensive writing on diverse topics appears in magazines, professional journals, newspapers, blog sites and as edited book chapters. She resides in the San Francisco Bay area. Read More
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