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In shape for the long term

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In shape for the long term

Jo Lavender, 60, of Mount Pleasant, has been a fitness instructor for more than three decades. She admits to worrying about staying relevant as a fitness instructor despite her experience and energy.

Careers typically span 25 to 40 years, but some that rely on physical strength or beauty are shorter than many that. Think professional athletes, dancers or models.

The fitness industry, long the bastion of youth and vigor, has been mainstream long enough to have fitness professionals getting into their 50s and 60s.

And while there is precedence for older fitness instructors inspiring younger generations for decades, such as the late, great Jack LaLanne, they have been few and far between.

The celebrity fitness icons of the 1980s, for the most part, have faded from the limelight.

Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, Olivia Newton-John, Kathy Smith and Jake "Body by Jake" Steinfield have faded, though Denise Austin and Billy Blanks of Tae Bo fame, who are both in their upper 50s, are still holding their own. Tony Horton, who emerged nationally in the 1990s of P90X fame, is in his mid-50s and still cranks out his high-intensity videos.

But those are "celebrities." What about the locals in the trenches in the gyms and studios of Charleston over the years?

An email from local, longtime fitness instructor Jo Lavender, who wanted to share some of her experiences of "aging gracefully" in the industry, spurred me to look into this.

"I have been in fitness for 30-plus years. You name it, I've taught it: Spinning, BodyPump, Zumba, boot camp, Step and core strength," says Lavender, a certified personal trainer who has worked at an array of health clubs, including the defunct Lifequest, V and Bluefish clubs.

Lavender now teaches three to four classes a week at Barre Evolution as well as an outdoor boot camp at Dunes West. Despite those opportunities, she admits to worrying about staying relevant as a fitness instructor despite her experience and energy.

"I find myself teaching Barre classes to mainly 20- and 30-year-olds, which helps keep me thinking young but realizing I'm not. Many of my students are shocked when I mention my grandkids," says Lavender. "I struggle with the fact that I may be over 60 years old but I'm a great instructor and I know I can teach these young ladies just as well as the new 'baby instructors.' "

She adds that the coaches of sports teams, particularly of male sports teams, don't face the same issues.

Anyone who starts hitting middle age experiences their first dose of ageism, defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as "the unfair treatment of old people," from being looked over for jobs to comments and jokes from family, friends and total strangers.

The fitness industry also tends to focus more on youthful appearance, achieving the chisel of "six pack" abs and "sculpted" butts and thighs, rather than the less sexy aspects of longevity, avoiding diseases and preventing falls.

Dr. Karin Volkwein-Caplan, a professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, briefly discusses the impact of ageism in the fitness industry in her book, "Sports Fitness Culture."

Volkwein-Caplan notes that despite the culture's continued assault on age, a revolution is underway.

"Films, commercials, books and magazines depict older adults as depressed, unattractive, ill, disabled, lonely, decrepit and even ready to die," she says on page 61 of the book. "These images reinforce social attitudes that 'old age' is the time of life when one loses physical and mental competence. The reality of what it means to be older in the 21st century, of course, presents a very different picture.

"Changes in patterns of activity, robust lifestyles, improved health care and increased life expectancy mean greater numbers of older adults present living and breathing challenges to traditional images of old age. ... Older men and women are staying physically, socially, and sometimes sexually active, well into their 90s. They are healthier, happier and more economically potent than ever before."

Whether gym owners or 20-somethings hold bias against trainers or instructors old enough to be their parents or grandparents may not matter as more Baby Boomers, with ample time and relative wealth, realize that physical fitness and a healthy diet will do more to keep them out of the doctor's office than taking it easy.

Even if a fraction of them do, it will present opportunities for same-age instructors.

According to the American Association for Retired People, 45 percent of the U.S. population will be age 50 or older by 2015. And the Census Bureau estimates that the 65-plus population will grow to 71.5 million.

Meredith Nelson, owner of PrimeTime Fitness on Sullivan's Island, has been in the fitness business since she was 25. She's now 46 and sees a bright future for herself and other older instructors willing to put in the effort.

"Personally, I don't see my job security decreasing each year due to my age," says Nelson. "In fact, I still have clients and class participants who prefer my classes, or me as a trainer, over some of my younger instructors simply because of my experience."

She describes PrimeTime's clientele as being a mix of ages, from 20-somethings to those "50 and over, way over."

"I think that the older clients and members appreciate my experience as an athlete, especially with my history of injuries. So when our older members ask me for advice concerning an ache or pain, or even something more serious, I can usually give them sound guidance, and I can also modify their exercises so as to accommodate or even reduce their limitations."

"The younger members at PrimeTime, I believe, see that I still train myself pretty hard. For example, when I put a class through a tough boot camp, they know that I have personally done the workout as well, and sometimes tone it down for them."

Tracie Long Mathewes, a longtime Charleston fitness icon, is the studio director of Long Training Studios and a prolific producer and star of fitness DVDs. Now 46, she's been in the business for 27 years.

Mathewes, who co-owned and managed V and Blue-fish, agrees with Lavender's concerns about being an aging instructor to varying degrees.

"Working in the fitness industry at this age as a 'coach' is tough just by the sheer nature of having a hands-on, physical, pick-things-up-all-day job, but what is the alternative? Sit on your butt all day? No way."

Mathewes says most of her clients and DVD buyers are middle-age or older women, so she knows the market well and probably better than younger trainers.

"It (working out effectively) is a delicate balance for all ages because we all sit way too much and most young people are in half of the (physical) shape I'm in. That's not because I train harder, but because I train smart."

"Coaching people takes patience, tact and drive regardless of your subject matter. You must be selfless and truly want to see change for the clients you are helping. Most 'young folks' burn out on that concept pretty fast. They want more, faster, better, easier and it truly is all about them.

"So we have to revel in what we know and love at 'our age.' The fitness industry will weed out the weak coaches fast."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.