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Monday, January 02, 2012

Strength Training Seniors

by Gillian Mounsey


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“My philosophy was and remains focused on what a client can do versus focusing on what he or she cannot do. There is nothing worse than beginning with a list of contraindications that left both me and the client unclear as to how to proceed. I chose to begin with a list of “can dos.” My programs are guided by three principles: 1) Is it safe? 2) Is it fun (fun being relative)? 3) Are they making measurable progress?”

Understanding the Value of Strength- The Epiphany

My grandmother, Shirley Mounsey, was the single biggest influence on how I view physical culture and the importance of physical strength. My earliest memories include those of her laboring in her vegetable garden or trimming hedges in her hot pants, a tank top, and platform wedges. The summers were always hot, and she was working hard enough to have an un-ladylike sweat going. I watched with admiration the muscles of her thighs and calves as she worked. I wondered if some day I would look like that; at that age my knee was the thickest part of my leg. My grandmother was always working, she raised my father and his siblings as a single mother – she worked hard to support her family. She taught me that if I wanted something in life, it would not be given to me, and I had better learn to do things for myself.



My grandma around the age of 20 (1940) posing on the fire escape
of her Brooklyn apartment. A natural brunette, she later decided
that blonds have more fun and never went back.

The daughter of a Russian immigrant, my grandmother grew up in Brooklyn, New York during the Great Depression. She was streetsavvy and never took anything for granted. At a young age my grandmother realized that she had an aptitude and a love for physical activity. She played all the street sports she could because there were few, if any, organized sports for girls in school. She loved to jump rope (she was fairly good at double-dutch, if memory serves), she played tag and stickball, and she danced. Later she discovered handball and realized that she could hustle the boys out of money. She took great pleasure in beating the boys – a quality I seemed to have inherited. But my grandmother was anything but a tomboy. Shirley loved sexy dresses, high heels, sparkly diamonds, and fur coats, though it was much later before she could afford these things.

I do admit that grandma Shirley was a bit of an anomaly. When my friends came to visit (she lived with us throughout my childhood) my friends never knew what to make of her. She was tough on my sister and me, and I think it scared our friends. She was definitely not your stereotypical “sweet old lady.” Grandma would bark orders at us and had the highest of expectations. Most of the time it would sound like, “Stand up straight, pull your belly in, shoulders back, stick out your chest, speak loudly and clearly, enunciate your words, don’t drag your feet, and look at me when I am talking to you.” She embodied the above description to a perfect T.

Grandma believed that “skinny” meant weak, and that “fat” meant lazy. My sister and I (both skinny little twerps) were forced to eat rare cuts of meat in natural juices, liver, and vegetables from the garden. For some reason rare roast beef, spinach, and tomatoes stand out in my memory. She was very supportive of my gymnastics career and my sister’s ballet career, and she truly understood the carryover of relentless dedication and hard physical activity to all aspects of life.

As a small child I knew that my grandmother’s presence commanded attention. When she walked into a room, heads would turn. Some may have mistaken her exceptional posture for arrogance. Somewhere along the way I recognized that what made her different was her strength – both physically and mentally – and that the two were inseparable.



Grandma in the early 1960s, dressed up as usual.

My grandmother led an exceptional life and spent many hours telling stories of her youth and Grandma in the early 1960s, dressed up as usual. teaching my sister and me valuable lessons. She enjoyed getting dressed to the nines and dancing with her boyfriend. She enjoyed collecting antiques, cars, jewels, furs, and various types of artwork. Her diet was healthy with an aversion to spices, and she loved chocolate. My grandmother passed at the age of 73 (when I was 15) of a quick and aggressive form of bone cancer. Her quality of life up until the last year was extraordinary – late into her 60s she could dance a 20-year-old under the table.

In addition to shaping my value of physical strength, my grandmother taught me that my elders have much to offer. This influenced my career focus and eventually led me to teaching seniors about physical exercise and strength training.

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