Ernestine Shepherd is 86 years old and one of the oldest living female competitive bodybuilders in the world. In March 2010, she won the Guinness World Record for The World’s Oldest Performing Female Bodybuilder in Rome, Italy. But she hasn’t always been a fit grandma. She describes herself as a “prissy” child uninterested in exercise. At age 56, she worked as a school secretary and had a sedentary lifestyle. She is living proof that it’s never too late to get into shape, and she swears by that idea. She works as a personal trainer and teaches exercise classes for seniors.
From Sedentary Secretary to Fit Grandma
In her mid-fifties, Shepherd went shopping for bathing suits with Mildred Blackwell, her sister. “When we looked at each other we both laughed because we didn’t look too good in those suits,” Shepherd said. “She said ‘Tina, we’re going to have to do something about this.'”
They began taking aerobics classes and once they started to lose weight, they added weight-lifting into their routines. However, Mildred died soon after from a brain aneurysm. Shepherd grieved deeply for her sudden loss, and stopped going to the gym. Her health suffered during the months following the death, struggling with high blood pressure, acid reflux, panic attacks, and depression. Eventually, her friend encouraged her to go back to the gym, saying Mildred would have wanted her to carry out their shared goal.
Slowly, Shepherd’s life changed. She began to wake up early and go for a run to train for marathons. She got Yohnnie Shambourger, the former Mr. Universe, as her bodybuilder trainer. At age 71, she entered her first bodybuilding competition and outperformed women decades younger than her. The fit grandma won first place in her class at the Natural East Coast Tournament of Champions bodybuilding competition.
“I feel now that I am a very strong, positive and confident woman,” she said at age 73 in a 2010 interview. “Years ago I concerned myself about what people said concerning me. But when you get 70-something and you don’t have that many years in front of you, you don’t concern yourself with that.” 
“Determined, dedicated, disciplined to be fit”
Toward the beginning of her journey, Ernestine worked with a nutritionist to create a healthy diet that could support her fitness endeavors. She also had the support of her husband, Collin, who she’s been married to for over 60 years. He helps her prepare meals and keeps the fridge stocked with healthy food. Despite her active lifestyle, Ernestine ensures she gets enough rest and recuperation. She keeps an optimistic attitude and finds her workouts fun and enjoyable, seeing her work as a “long happy journey.” 
She shared her story in her book The “Ageless” Journey of Ernestine Shepherd, where she encourages people to get fit no matter their age, whether they are a young mom or an old grandma. In it, she repeats her mantra “Determined, dedicated, disciplined to be fit,” while maintaining that age is truly just a number. She believes that “being out of shape as we age truly is merely an option – NOT a mandate!”
She encourages people to figure out what kind of exercise they like best. “Not everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, not everybody wants to be a runner. But find what you like to do,” she said. And she states the importance of staying motivated. Although prayer and her faith gives her strength, her late sister motivates her more than anything else. 
Starting to Exercise As an Older Adult
Working out isn’t just for young folk. In fact, exercise is one of the best things people can do for their health, especially as they age. Not only can it help with physical and mental wellbeing, but it can help older people maintain their independence. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercises and to get active at least three days a week — including muscle-strengthening activities two days a week.
But it’s important to start slow. Over-exercising can lead to injury or quitting. It’s better to maintain slow but steady progress. To reduce the risk of injury, start with gentle warm-ups and finish with cold downs, stay hydrated, wear appropriate clothes and shoes, and discuss any underlying health conditions with a doctor before starting a new regime. Fitness should include exercises for strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. A health professional could help advise on what activities are best for you and which ones you should avoid. 
“When anyone first starts exercising, it is important to first assess your physical fitness,” said Dr. Elizabeth Gardner, MD, a Yale Medicine orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine. “While there is almost no absolute contraindication to exercise, certain medical or physical conditions may require certain adjustments to an exercise routine.”
“No such thing as too late”
After getting your doctor’s approval, start with an exercise that’s familiar and enjoyable, like taking nature walks, bicycling, or playing a sport. But remember to start slow. “The goal is to build a habit and be able to gradually increase your activity over time,” said Dr. Gardner. “If lifting weights, start with weights that you can perform 10-12 repetitions of at first. You don’t want to be so sore after the first outing that you can’t move for a week.”
But balance exercises are especially important for older adults since they can help prevent falls later on. They can include marching in place, standing on one foot, and shifting weight from one leg to the other. Pilates, tai chi, and yoga can help develop balance, improve mobility, and build strength. Plus, group classes could create a sense of community. The impact of regular social interaction — especially for lonely grandmas, grandpas, and anyone older and living alone — can be just as beneficial as staying physically fit.
“There really is no such thing as ‘too late’ when it comes to exercise,” said Nicholas Rizzo, a personal trainer, biologist and fitness research director. “The research is clear — whether you are turning 50 or 80, it isn’t too late to start. Exercise will help you live longer, improve your quality of life, fight the aging process and so much more.” 
- “Ernestine Shepherd, 77-Year-Old Bodybuilder, Says ‘Age Is Nothing But A Number’.” HuffPost. Lisa Capretto. April 4, 2014
- “Meet Ernestine.” Ernestine Shepherd.
- “80-Year-Old Body Builder: ‘Age is Nothing But a Number’.” Yahoo Life. Kerry Justich. June 20, 2016
- “How Older Adults Can Get Started With Exercise.” National Institute on Aging. April 3, 2020
- “Exercising in your 50s and beyond: Tips from a doctor and fitness pros.” CNET. Amanda Capritto. March 4, 2020