Illustration: Rosie Carmichael


The pensioners at my local gym are my #fitspo

Their bodies might be weak, but their strength of mind is remarkable, says Marisa Bate. And it’s a damn sight stronger than mine

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By Marisa Bate on

Winter is the enemy of working out. I don’t even want to take my socks off, let alone change into cropped trousers and a sports bra. To boot, we tend to eat more at this time of year, battling the wind and rain. Plus, with Christmas around the corner, the chances of a hangover are high. Combined, this makes a trip the gym a physiological Everest.

I fell off the wagon entirely when the weather first changed – as if my body went into some sort of outraged shock paralysis, refusing to move or bend. Yet, somehow, a part of me (probably the same part that also loves wine and Kit Kat Chunkys) found the reserve to go back. Reluctant and petulant, twice a week, I go to the gym and continue to sweat buckets and feel less prone to a heart attack.   

My hesitancy to work out (mostly because there’s a gap between the end of my cropped workout trousers and the tops of my winter boots that is particularly drafty) is even more shameful when I arrive at the gym. But not because of the terrifying woman who is 150% muscle, running while holding weights above her head, or the women who stand in front of a mirror, squatting and stretching and lunging, with bodies of Roman gladiators.

The real shame comes from the pensioners who regularly use my council-run gym. According to my gym, the well-reported fact that we’re living longer but not necessarily more healthily is fake news. Swing by on a Wednesday morning, and you’ll see octogenarians on treadmills and bike machines. Seventysomethings use the weight machines, slowly but determinedly. An elderly Sikh couple are there every week. Side by side, they walk on inclined treadmills in their box-fresh white trainers. Sometimes, an old lady with neat brown curls walks in, leaning on the arm of a trainer, a stick also helping her along. My favourite is the woman – I’d guess in her late seventies – who comes in tracksuit bottoms and dozens of layers. She strips right back to a T-shirt and walks really, really fast for 20 minutes. She doesn’t bother to use a locker, her stuff neatly piled at the end of the machine. There’s a no-nonsense, no-time-to-lose approach to her workout that I like to imagine she has in life. Perhaps she was a headmistress or an investigative reporter. Occasionally, I see the more fragile pensioners on a machine, sitting down, pushing their arms around, like the movement legs make on a bike. Watching frail arms go around and around and around reminds me of how tired our bodies will eventually be, but how we have to keep pushing on regardless.

If they can show up when it’s cold and wet outside, so the hell can I

Sometimes, when I’m in the gym, I have a minor out-of-body experience, acutely aware that there are a lot of humans running very fast but going nowhere, all paying for the privilege of trying to make ourselves less unhappy with ourselves. And, if I think too hard, it freaks me out. Added to this, I’m witnessing the new crop of young women who attend the gym, looking perfect – hair, make-up – and barely working up a sweat. They do, however, spend a lot of time looking in the mirror. As with most things, I blame the Kardashians and the endless pics in workout wear or in gyms that are completely sweat-free. We’re shown the toned body, but we’re not really shown how they got it. Somedays, I can leave thinking that this is not a place I want to be. Yet, when the pensioners show up, all that changes.

Their determination and confidence never fails to impress. To walk into a gym, needing the support of another person and a stick, indicates just how hard this experience must be. But they’re there anyway. Forget those work-out videos that crop up on Facebook. These men and women – arched backs, slow, heavy limbs, moving in anyway they can – are my #fitspo. Their bodies might be weak, but their strength of mind is remarkable. And it’s a damn sight stronger than mine. If they can show up when it’s cold and wet outside, so the hell can I.

Watching these workouts isn't just inspiring and motivating. It makes me like my own body more, too. I realise the freedom I have to run fast for a sustained period of time. I realise the strength I have. And this isn’t about being fitter than them – it’s about realising that our bodies will serve us (hopefully) for a long time to come. Thanks to their bodies, these pensioners stay healthy, they also get together for a cup of tea after. They chat with the trainers. They are determined to stay well and they are part of the community.

My local pensioners probably think the gym is doing them a lot of good. I wonder if they know they’re doing the gym a lot of good, too.


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Illustration: Rosie Carmichael
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