With many other competitions geared towards younger participants – age categories generally cap off at just 35 – the UK’s largest gym chain is working to change perceptions of competitive fitness and get more people involved in exercise later in life.
The fitness event, which took place at a PureGym in Swiss Cottage, North London, was split into two halves. The first was an all-out strength test where participants competed to see who could lift the highest percentage of their body weight across the bench press, front squat, and deadlift. And the second was a ‘Full Body Fitness Sprint’, which tested endurance, power, and mobility.
Heather Avul and Allison Rodger, two competitors who took home gold, tell us about the event and the benefits of participating in competitive fitness in later life…
“I always wanted to be really good at something”
“I was quite a chubby child, so I probably didn’t look like I was into fitness,” 50-year-old Heather tells us. “But I always wanted to be really good at something.”
So, after a teacher told her she wouldn’t be able to compete in the 800m, Heather began running from her mother’s house to the Co-Op and back – and around a nearby field. Then, when sports day rolled around later that school year, she won first place.
Heather’s dogged determination to develop her skills as a runner continued throughout secondary school. As a young woman, she even decided to become a personal trainer in the Army, but her journey was sadly cut short by a skiing accident.
“I completely ruptured all the ligaments in my knee,” Heather explains. “I had to have an operation the day after I returned to the UK and spent eight weeks in a cast.”
Then, shortly after her accident, Heather met her husband and started a family. “I was really busy being a mum,” she tells us. Her exercise levels dropped substantially over the next few decades, but she never lost her yearning to take part in competitive events.
She says, “My firstborn had a poorly heart, and when she was in the pediatric intensive care unit, the London Marathon came on the television. I thought, ‘One day, I’ll run that and raise money for Heart Link.” And in her 40s, Heather took up running again…
“One day, I had to run for the bus [...] I said to the driver, ‘Oh boy, I really need to do something about this’”
Sixty-three-year-old Allison Rodger has a similar story to Heather. While she was active in her youth – running cross country for Northumberland as a teen and playing in most of her school’s teams – sports and exercise fell by the wayside when she moved to London to study fashion design.
Allison says, “Having been very sporty and fit in my youth and heavily into dance in my 20s […], it was quite a surprise when [someone] said to me, ‘Allison, you were really lithe once.’ And I realised she was right; I no longer had the fitness of my youth.
“One day, I had to run for the bus, and although I made it, I could barely breathe. I said to the driver, ‘Oh boy, I really need to do something about this.’”
So, in November 2019, when she was 59, Allison joined a nearby gym. “I had no idea what a squat, plank, or burpee was, so I just watched what the others were doing and did my best.”
But it wasn’t until after the COVID-19 pandemic that Allison truly plunged headfirst into the world of fitness and began working with a trainer. Like Heather, one of her main goals was to run the London Marathon.
“[Working with a trainer] totally transformed my life, and I’ve never felt so fit,” Allison explains. “I learned so much during those months – the right foods to fuel the exercise, hydration, and the importance of sleep.”
“It’s a huge achievement. It should show anyone, no matter their age, that they can do it too"
Like Allison, Heather also decided to work with a trainer who introduced her to HYROX – a sport that combines running with strength tests.
Heather explains, “It involves eight 1km runs, and after each run, you have a kind of station to do, like the rowing machine or a farmer’s carry.”
The Full Body Sprint Event at PureGym’s Over 50s Fitness Championships is essentially a miniature version of HYROX – sharing many of the same features, just on a smaller scale. So when Heather first received an email about the competition, she was instantly intrigued.
“I thought, oooh, this looks exciting – and it involves everything I’m already training for anyway.” So, on the 7th of September, she took the bus down from Leicester to take part.
She says, “Everyone at PureGym was really welcoming. After we met everybody, we had a little chat, and the staff ran us through a nice warm-up. Then we went into the room where we would do the actual competition.”
Heather was up first, and while the exercises were familiar to her, the short, intense nature of the Full Body Sprint Event proved a challenge…
“I thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t because, after the run, you were really puffed out. It’s a totally different energy system. But it was really fun, and we all encouraged each other.”
Once all the contestants had competed, Heather found out that her hard work had paid off when it was announced that she’d come in first place, with a time of 13 minutes and 49 seconds. “It felt really good,” she says. “And I got a nice trophy.”
Allison also took home gold, winning the female squat category (by lifting 114% of her body weight) and the overall female weightlifting prize.
“It’s a huge achievement,” she says. “[It] should show anyone, no matter their age, that they can do it too.”
“I’m as fit as many of the 30-year-olds in my gym classes”
But getting fit in later life isn’t all about gold medals and personal bests. As Allison explains, it’s had a profound impact on her day-to-day life.
“Going to the gym, taking part in classes, and using weights has helped me keep strength in my muscles, which supports my bones and has made all movement easier and without pain.
“At 63, I can confidently run for a bus, walk up the escalators on the underground and do other things in my daily life that might otherwise have become a struggle. I feel lighter on my feet, can walk faster, and generally feel more alert and awake. So much so [that] I’m as fit as many of the 30-year-olds in my gym classes – and even fitter than some!
“I feel far more confident in myself. I know I could protect myself in a dangerous situation whenever I’m on my own, and, as I say, I’m not suffering from those niggling aches and pains that other people my age are.
In the same way, Heather also attributes exercise to her lack of “normal aches and pains that come with age”, but running has provided her with a unique form of stress relief over the years…
“When I was going through a difficult period back in 2016, I used to go for a run, and it really helped to clear my mind. I believe exercise has a lot of mental benefits.”
And scientific research backs this up. Running is a mindful activity that helps bring our attention to the present moment and can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. However, exercise, in general, can release feel-good chemicals (endorphins), which may have mood-boosting effects and help to combat feelings of depression.
“The social aspect [...] is another plus that isn’t spoken about enough!”
While the benefits of Heather and Allison’s foray into fitness later in life have been immense, it certainly hasn’t been easy. For Heather, one of the biggest challenges has been finding the time to prioritise her health.
She says, “The most challenging part is fitting it into the day with everything else. For me, it’s really important that I get my training in. If I don’t get it done in the morning, I find it really difficult to do it in the afternoon or evening, so I have to plan ahead. I have to know exactly what I’m doing the next day. It’s also good to have accountability.”
To keep yourself accountable, Heather recommends joining exercise clubs and classes or getting a trainer if you can afford to. You could even pair up with a friend and commit to a weekly session. Because, as Heather explains, when it’s just you, it’s easy to stay in bed that little bit longer and miss your morning workout.
“Mixing with other people really helps,” she tells us. “For instance, last week, I had a long run in the planner. I didn’t fancy doing it alone, so I went to the park to join a group of runners who meet on a Sunday morning. It’s nice because you can chat – it’s a lovely community.”
Allison agrees, saying, “The social aspect and the chance to make friends at the gym is another plus that isn’t spoken about enough!”
“If anything is important in older age, it’s balance combined with strength”
For anyone looking to start getting fitter in later life, Allison says that regularity is key and recommends aiming for three to five days per week. “This could simply start with walking. It’s easy to do (especially with friends), and it’s free!”
If you’re looking to take it further, she recommends joining a gym and focusing on strength and balance training…
“I used to say that I hated gyms, and many others think they do too. However, joining a gym with helpful trainers to advise on how to get started with exercise and nutrition is the surest way to learn how to use light weights and get the muscles working […] If anything is important in older age, it’s balance combined with strength – to prevent falls and broken bones.”
Heather, who has had her fair share of injuries, is also keen to highlight the importance of a proper warm-up. “I always make sure that I do a nice ramp warm-up,” she says. “I raise the heart rate, activate the muscles, mobilise the joints, and get my body ready for the session. A nice warm-up is really important, especially as we’re getting older.”
“[Being fit] helps you maintain your independence as you get older”
Since competing in PureGym’s over 50s Fitness Championships, Heather has travelled to Malmö, Sweden, to participate in a HYROX event, where she won the women’s over 50s age group. She also hopes to participate in the World Championships next year in France.
“I was in my 40s when I started running again,” she says. “Now, I’m in my 50s and probably in the best shape of my life. So it’s never too late to start.”
Allison has since achieved her goal of running the London Marathon, while Heather hopes to qualify next year. One thing’s for sure: neither shows any signs of slowing down.
Allison says, “Being fit at 60 has so many benefits. It obviously starts with maintaining good health, but it also goes beyond that.
“I find it a huge confidence builder – I have the strength and balance to avoid falls, and to lift everyday objects, reach into cupboards, and do other things that may otherwise become a struggle. So, in short, it helps you to maintain your independence the older you get.”
For more ideas and information on staying in shape in later life, you might want to visit our fitness and exercise section. You can also use the button below to find your closest PureGym.
Have Heather and Allison’s stories inspired you? Or do you have any extra tips for keeping fit? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.