accessibility · aging · fitness · inclusiveness · strength training

Sam wonders about balance: How to applaud aging and weight training for functional fitness without shame and blame for those who can’t

There’s a very moving ad making the rounds about a grandfather strength training for Christmas so that he can lift his granddaughter up to put a star on top of the tree. I got teary watching it and likely you will too. You’ve been warned.

I love his grit and determination. I also love his smiles.

It’s called Take Care of Yourself and it’s the Doc Morris Christmas Advert for 2020.

I also love its message of functional fitness and strength training as we age for all sorts of very practical reasons.

I share a lot of ‘keep strength training as you age’ motivational material on the blog’s Twitter and Facebook page.

See, for example, 5 key steps to build muscle and its many science-backed health benefits.

“A small 2013 study of people between the ages of 88 and 96 years old found that those who performed strength-training exercises for two days a week over a 12-week period showed improvements in balance and a lower incidence of falls when compared to those who didn’t exercise. “It’s safe and important for older people to include strength training,” Jackson says. “Even simple bodyweight exercises like squats, push-ups, and dips can help with strength and muscle building.”

See also What Older People May Be Missing in Their Exercise Workouts

Answer, “As people age, they often focus on cardio. They shouldn’t forget strength training.”

I’m not here to criticize the beautiful and moving strength training grandad commercial. Don’t worry. But I do worry that the focus on strength training for independent living buys into the message that physical dependence is a necessarily a bad thing. I hope to put off the time when I need assistance with everyday household tasks and personal care as long as possible. But I also hope when I need help that I and others can accept it without thinking I ought to have done more kettlebell swings or that it was a moral failing of mine to not care enough about my own health and strength.

I worry that our affection for the weightlifting grandfather is connected to a kind of ableism that celebrates movement and blames those who move less, even when we have no choice. In my own case I’ve talked about that in the context of becoming a non-runner and slower walker.

Regular long time readers will know that it’s hard to hold these two thoughts in balance. You’ll know that it’s something I struggle with.

After all, I wrote both Is Aging a Lifestyle Choice? and What does 74 look like? And how much choice do we have really?


Thought 1 is that older people are encouraged to slow down. It used to be that when people retired we bought them reclining chairs and told them to ‘relax.’ After all, they’d worked hard their whole lives. Not so much now as times are changing but it’s still true that gyms and fitness culture generally are geared towards young, fit, able bodied people. Older women worry they’ll look foolish exercising. If all of our fitness culture is geared towards aesthetics and maintaining beautiful youthful bodies, no wonder older people feel like they don’t belong.

We see this in the ad above when his neighbour looks to be judgemental of his fitness efforts. She seems puzzled about what he’s doing and why.

And yet, there is a huge cost in losing muscle, losing mobility, and increasing our risk of falling if we don’t continue to exercise–including weight training–as we age.

Older people have far more at stake than the young. The young can get away with a lot. They recover quickly if they are injured. And they bounce back from time off fitness efforts pretty speedily too. All of this gets more difficult as we get older. Indeed, if gyms should be there for anyone, it’s for the elderly.

Thought 2 worries that some of our dislike of old age is a tangled mess of ageism and ableism.

The thought here is that we engage in blame about the failure to age successfully when lots of people encounter the kinds of illness and injury in old age that can’t be overcome with kettlebells and powerwalking. In my post about what 74 looks like I talked about my very fit and physically active mother-in-law who used a wheelchair for mobility in the time after her diagnosis with ALS.

If you’re an academic reading the blog have a look at Christine Overall’s Old Age and Ageism, Impairment and Ableism: Exploring the Conceptual and Material Connections in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal.

See Valuing Old Age Without Leveraging Ableism by Clara W. Berridge and Marty Martinson. They argue that our medical model of “successful aging” without disability sets up the majority of the population, especially women, for failure. Berridge and Martinson write, “Phrases such as “70 is the new 50” reflect a “positive aging” discourse, which suggests that the preferred way of being old is to not be old at all, but rather to maintain some image of middle-age functionality and appearance.”

We want to encourage ourselves to keep moving and to stay strong. At the same time we need respect and compassion for those who can’t move and lift in the same way. It’s a battle I feel personally as I struggle to accept my physical limits without self-blame and still push myself in those areas of physical fitness where I can push. Wish me luck!

I’d appreciate your thoughts about keeping these two thoughts in balance, the push to stay fit and strong and mobile, on the one hand, and the understanding and acceptance when it’s not.

One thing I would say, going back to the video that began this post, is that I wish he wasn’t lifting alone. I wanted a community centre for him to go too. I wanted peers for him to lift with and walk with and drink tea after. We need to do better as fitness communities making inclusive spaces for those who are aging, those who move in different ways, and those for whom both these things are true.

Sam’s biitmoji lifting weights

Often when I start thinking about inclusion and fitness I search for an older blog post by Krista Scott Dixon that always makes me smile, All are welcome in this house that strength built.

“So give me your poor, your tired, your weak of spine and crumbling of bone. Give me your mushy of muscle and burbly of digestion and bored of treadmill-hamstering.

Give me your old and young and everything between early bipedalism and death. And while you’re at it give me your non-bipedal: your limps and gimps and wimps and wheeled and caned and casted and bandaged. Untangle your sweaty hospital sheets and IV tubes and tentacles of fear and shame and move whatever isn’t strapped down. A finger, a leg, an eyelid. Whatever you can move, keep moving it. Next week, add some weight to that.

Give me your saggy, your baggy, your faggy, your haggy. Give me your freaks and geeks; steers and queers; sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, preppies, jocks, stoners, poindexters, punkers, rockers, hicks, drama dorks, superstars, homebodies, farmers, New Wavers and socs.

Give me your bodies wracked with life’s whims; your hormonally challenged; your rattling bottles of pills like morbid maracas; your diseases of disuse. Your old knee injury from when you tried drunken trampolining.

Give me your your shit-talkers and funk-walkers; the voices in your head who sing the Rocky training montage; your sniveling inner toddler who stamps and says “No!”. Leave your inner critic at the door, or do five pushups every time you speak to yourself seriously in her voice.

Give me your clueless big-eyed newbies and grizzled gray-prickly veterans. Give me your squashy and scrawny. Give me your chickenshits; you people hunting for your fighting spirit and tending the tiny flame of Yes we can inside your ribcage.

It doesn’t matter who kicked the sand in your face. Spit it out and let’s get to work.”

There’s more…go read it. And I love how it ends, “Wherever you are in your journey of strength, you are welcome here. This place is for you.”

8 thoughts on “Sam wonders about balance: How to applaud aging and weight training for functional fitness without shame and blame for those who can’t

  1. Of course I love and agree with your message of inclusive fitness (it being also my message lol). I also loved this grandfather ad and it made me tear up. I too struggle with the conceptual balance between trying to promote movement to whatever ability we have, on the one hand, and recognizing the ableist thinking that permeates the narrative about staying active as we age (i.e. that it is somehow “better” to do it if we can do it). I’m not sure if it can be completely overcome without dispensing with the idea of movement as a value. Can we hold in balance the idea that IF we can stay active, it’s better to do so and the idea that if we cannot do so, there is no shame in that either? Indeed, even the first idea contains a value-judgment that may implicitly shame those who can but don’t. The “can but don’t” is hauled out for people of all-ages, often as a tool of SELF-flagellation and certainly as a way in to fat-shaming of self and others. We wrote in our book that we do not subscribe the the health imperative — this ought to be a judgment-free zone where choice prevails. But it is more complicated than that when in the end, we recognize the value of health and fitness as an important part of well-being. Great post! Very thought-provoking — there is fodder here for our next book. 🙂

  2. YES PLEASE NEXT BOOK! (enthusiasm level requires CAPS)

    I loved this post x100. Ableism, aging, adaptation, acceptance, activity, “ambitions”. All topics of importance to me, more of late.

    Trying to work with some mottos/mantras:

    Assess, adjust, adapt.

    My game, my rules. (Dave McGillivray, race director of The Boston Marathon)

    What will I do today to feel how I want to feel?

    Move often, sometimes harder, outside daily (if possible), every bit matters. (Brad Stulberg, Outside Mag Online)

    So what, what now? (Matt Dixon, Purple Patch Fitness – acknowledge what happened, now what will you do about it or in response)

    “Sometimes people let the same problem make them miserable for years when they could just say, ‘So what’. That’s one of my favorite things to say. ‘So what.’” (Andy Warhol)

  3. Like Tracy, I agree with all you say here about the challenge of balancing 1) the importance and benefits of mobility/strength/stamina as we age with 2) exploring aging without the extra burdens of ableist assumptions about what sorts of lives are worth living.

    I’m blogging Wednesday, so I’d like to think on this and follow up to your post. For me, falling into identifying my physical self-worth with some version of a past level of fitness gives rise to sadness, anger, fear, and sometimes (meaning often) paralysis. Letting this go is easier said than done.

    I love that you suggested the grandfather not lift alone, hidden in the garage, but instead with others (of all ages and abilities)! YES TO THIS! In our future friendly feminist old-lady-and-friends-of-old-ladies tiny house commune, we will have to have a full community physical exploration center/centre!

    1. THIS is SO one of the things I’m finding.
      “For me, falling into identifying my physical self-worth with some version of a past level of fitness gives rise to sadness, anger, fear, and sometimes (meaning often) paralysis. Letting this go is easier said than done.”

      I’m not sure when they will be able to restart, but parkrun is an amazing inclusive community initiative, worldwide, and free. Every Saturday 9A local time, people of ALL ages and abilities gather to run, walk, roll, whatever on a 5k course. There are also opportunities to volunteer and often a group coffee/breakfast outing afterward. (one could just come and chat, then go for coffee) Also plenty of online chat amongst the various locations, participants, organizers. Started in UK. (I don’t work for them, just support, evangelize, and sometimes attend.)

      1. I love the idea of parkrun. I keep wanting someone to blog about it. When they restart, you should!

  4. I love this post. But how sad there was so much negativity and judgement by everyone around him in the video! He deserves a medal for overcoming all that AS WELL AS his ageing body- it really showed me the wider social attitudes around fitness being only for the young 🙁

    I look forward to the book 🙂

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