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Success story: Age is no barrier to strength and independence

Posted by Amy: August 2012

Sonja and John Sonja Rutherford is 75 years old and still going strong. So strong in fact that she can Powerlift a cool 131 kilograms.

Fifteen years ago Sonja retired with recurrent back problems. Her doctor told her to do the best she could, reminded her that she wasn't getting any younger and advised her that ultimately she would probably end up in a wheelchair.

‘I was told to avoid lifting anything because it would make the problem worse, so I did and gradually I lost more and more muscle,' said Sonja.

It was around this time that she became involved in a 12 month research study with 30 other post-menopausal women to determine the impact of strength training on muscle mass, agility, balance and general quality of life. The study was conducted by exercise physiologist, Eric Rosario.

‘We are always told by health professionals that losing strength and muscle is an inevitable result of ageing, but it doesn't have to be,' said Sonja.

‘Within just six months of working with Eric I noticed major improvements to my health. My back problems had significantly reduced, I had improved upper body strength and I generally felt much stronger and fitter. Many other women taking part found they were even able to reduce their medication for health problems like type 2 diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis.'

The results were so impressive that Rosario and the Council of the Ageing (COTA) joined forces to develop Living Longer Living Stronger, a strength training program designed specifically for the over 50s. For the past 13 years, Sonja has been a volunteer instructor for the program at her local gym in Broadmeadows.

‘Seeing and feeling the benefits of strength training made me realise that we don't have to accept the idea that slowing down and losing independence is an inevitable process of ageing. After years of problems I can now hang out the washing without pain and walk upstairs with ease.'

Before long, Sonja wanted to challenge herself even further, so what else was there to do but join the Melbourne University Weightlifting and Powerlifting Club.

‘No one could believe it when I walked in, and there was quite a bit of scorn by some of the young men,' said Sonja. Sonja and John

Not one to be intimidated, Sonja persevered, and it wasn't long before she was competing in Powerlifting competitions across the country and even as far away as Fiji, New Zealand and the Czech Republic.

‘Competing was great fun, and everybody was quite surprised when I managed to squat lift 131 kilograms, which is my record,' said Sonja.

‘My husband John joined me in competing and he has managed a squat lift of 175 kilograms! And of course he has also seen enormous health benefits from the strength training.

‘We work together as volunteer instructors for the Living Longer Living Stronger program three days a week. It’s incredibly rewarding because you get to see the improvement in people’s physical abilities, and how much happier they are as a result.

‘Improving strength by lifting weights brings with it a fantastic sense of achievement. You don’t have to be competing or lifting heavy weights to feel good. Just being able to do things that you thought were no longer possible really raises your self-esteem. You start to see aging differently and question all other claims attributed to aging. It’s very empowering.’

Keeping active is a great way to cut your risk of certain cancers, but it also has many more health benefits such as preventing and managing conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, depression and dementia. You can find out more about the Living Longer Living Stronger program or any of Active Ageing programs on the Council on the Ageing website.

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