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The Mouse and the Martial Artist

by Jeri Massi

Jeanne is 76, and I am 40.

One night I introduced myself to a small neighborhood group meeting for a Bible study session in a rather unique way: I broke a few boards. I demonstrated by some round house kicks, an elbow strike and a short punch. Although one of the women, Jeanne, hid her eyes because she was certain I would hurt myself, she was eventually persuaded that, yes, a woman can break boards with hands and feet without injury if she strikes properly. After I did break the boards, she declared that she supposed I could do just about anything I set my mind to do.

From this odd beginning, we struck up a friendship. Jeanne's profound kindness and hospitality, as well as her open minded approach to people around her, deeply impressed me. She has a short, fluffy white cloud of snow white hair, perfectly round eyes magnified by thick glasses, a face just saved from being round by high cheek bones and a slightly pointed chin. I nicknamed her Mouse from the beginning of our friendship.

Though an avid swimmer until last summer, Jeanne suffered a health setback at Thanksgiving when her heart abruptly raced out of control, reaching 200 beats per minute for several minutes. The doctor who attended her in the emergency room told her that her racing heart had not caused a heart attack, though it might have in a woman of less robust health. But the episode, never explained, left Jeanne tired and more aware of her vulnerability.

It was an ideal time to suggest weight lifting as a means of prolonging her quality of life. I purchased a gym membership for her as a Christmas gift, and in January I began to teach her how to lift weights.

No other group benefits as much from proper weight resistance training as those people we've now come to classify as seniors. The first major study that tested the gains in health by older people using weight resistance training was on a group whose average age was 90. After eight weeks of carefully supervised training sessions, the average improvement was almost a three-fold increase in strength for each person.

After Jeanne visited her doctor, I began to instruct her on the proper form for each weight lifting exercise. Lifting correctly is crucial for everybody, but the older you are, the less you can afford to cheat or take short cuts.

Jeanne and I meet at Gold's gym in Raleigh, North Carolina for weight lifting sessions. I realized, as we entered for her first lesson, that Jeanne's generation had been taught that weight lifting was for men; serious, intensive physical training was for people dedicated to physical fitness as their life's work. These were professional athletes, Jack LaLaine or maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger, but not middle class, 'average' people.

In our first session, Jeanne felt out of place, and tried to hide her feelings by giggling quite a bit. It was difficult for her to stay focused on what we were doing, and she gave me the feeling that she wasn't taking this seriously. I felt exasperated with her a few times, though I did not show my feelings. I could not understand why she was treating the lesson with what appeared to be a silly attitude.

When I took her to the side to practice stepping up onto a high step and then descending, she returned to being calm and focused. We were out of view from everybody out on the floor. That was when I realized that being out in the gym itself, among the stacks of weights, the machines with their cables, the long padded benches, was a foreign experience. She had been hiding a degree of self consciousness. I also learned as we worked on the step-ups that Jeanne's balance was not perfect. I had to assist her as she stepped up and stepped down ten times with the left foot leading and ten times with the right foot leading. Diminished balance can be reduced with proper practice during exercises like step-ups. Some people practice standing on one foot for several seconds and then standing on the other. I noted in our training journal that Jeanne and I would work on step-ups in every future session to improve balance.

By our second session, Jeanne was more accustomed to the idea of lifting weights among a group of people. She stopped giggling and joking and instead started focussing on each set with the attention and concentration I would ask of an athlete.

Jean's overall health is good and therefore I've put her through a program called a 'full body workout.' The body has four major muscle groups: shoulders, chest, lats (latissimus dorsi), and legs. The legs can be divided further into gluteals, hamstrings, and quadriceps. For Jeanne, I selected two exercises for each major muscle group. She does three sets of ten repetitions each on each exercise. So, for example, on the chest press she pushes the weighted bar on the press machine forward ten times (ten repetitions), and that equals one set. After a thirty second rest, she does another set of ten presses, rests again, and then performs one more set of ten. That makes three sets, and so then we move to the next exercise. The body has minor muscle groups as well: the biceps, triceps, and calves. We work on one of the minor muscle groups in each workout.

Every time we get together, Jeanne does ten complete exercises, three sets per exercise. We emphasize good form and I try to challenge her so that she really has to work but without straining. After a good weight workout, the muscles actually are broken down a bit. They repair over the next few days and become stronger in order to adapt to the stresses placed on them.

It cheers my day knowing that I will be meeting Jeanne at the gym. When we work out, I feel as though both of us are working on preserving her health and strength. Jeanne always thanks me for being generous with her, but I sense that I am also giving something to everybody who comes into contact with Jeanne. And, I am giving something to myself. After all, Jeanne has fought her battles. She's raised children, dealt with divorce, met the death of friends and family members and helped people through illness and other troubles.

At 76, Jeanne continues to live a productive, selfless life. She is what I want to be as a human being. And, in reality, learning to lift weights is one way to adapt, survive and grow, and that's what being senior is all about. To judge from her history, Jeanne will do just that.



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