Woman, 76, makes 20-year life plan after simple exercise boosts health

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On the measures that count, 76-year-old Geraldine Vinall from Milton Keynes had a poor quality of life. She was living with advanced osteoarthritis and chronic pain. Geraldine was labelled “severely disabled” and told her spine was crumbling.

Unfortunately for Geraldine, pain was nothing new. The 76-year-old had dealt with neck and back pain throughout her adult life, following polio and a horse-riding accident as a child, and a car crash at age 21, which injured her neck.

Diagnosed with advanced and severe osteoarthritis in her cervical spine in her early 30’s, Geraldine struggled with increasing pain, stiffness and immobility, despite regular dog walking and visits to a chiropractor.

She attributes the first Covid lockdown to her realisation that she still had a life ahead of her that she wanted to enjoy to the full.

“The women on both sides of my family live well into their nineties, and I wanted to be able to plan for the next 15-20 years,” she explained.

After weighing up her options, she sought help to manage her pain, and was referred by her GP to community healthcare services provider, Connect Health. She had a phone consultation with one of Connect’s MSK (musculoskeletal) clinicians, Charlotte Hopper.

Charlotte said: “During that first chat, Geraldine had so much to say – she’s a very bubbly, motivated lady, but she felt she’d been ignored by medical professionals in the past. She’d been told her spine is crumbling, she’d been passed from one person to the next and never offered any real solutions. She needed reassurance about how to manage her pain, and to understand what is going on with her conditions.”

The pair began initial one-to-one gym sessions, before Geraldine joined small group classes with other patients, led by Charlotte.

New beginnings

A gym member for many years, Geraldine had lost confidence and belief that it was the right way for her. Diminishing outcomes had led to lowered expectations, and motivation was becoming harder to sustain. She and Charlotte laughed about “needing WD40 for the joints”.

Charlotte explained that “loaded weights and strength training – encourage synovial fluid – Nature’s WD40 – into stiff and painful joints to optimise flexibility and reduce pain”.

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This was a new approach to using a gym for physio and rehab.

Geraldine said she imagined physio would be “a bit of massage and maybe some ultrasound”, neither of which had worked in the past “but Charlotte’s idea made sense, and hope started to return”.

Charlotte continued: “In the first one-to-one, it took me 20 minutes to get her on the cross-trainer, I think she was weighing me up. But once she got going, she made amazing progress. Then we moved onto small group classes, which I think was the fix for her. She’s quite competitive, so she would be watching the other patients – most were younger than her – and want to be better.

“At first, she’d barely do a squat, but soon she was lifting 4kg weights, and then she’d pick up an 8kg kettlebell and start squatting. She flew through the circuits we set for the group.”

The pair kept in touch outside of the classes via app updates, where Geraldine would keep Charlotte posted on her progress while doing the exercises on her own.

Geraldine discharged herself from the group, as she felt there were others who needed the place more than she did. She is now keeping up her workouts at home and in the gym – where she’s also planning to start virtual spin classes.

In addition to giving her a new lease of life, the weight training has alleviated some of Geraldine’s chronic pain.

She is now lifting 8kg kettlebells and has a “life plan” to take her well into her nineties.

“I’ve gradually switched the focus over the years from [looking after] everyone else to looking after me. I’m finally, truly, independent, although I’m still evolving.”

Evidence suggest Geraldine’s story is not a fluke. Regularly exercising with weights is linked to a lower risk of death from any cause, with the exception of cancer, suggests research carried out in older adults and published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Commenting on Geraldine’s story, Doctor Graeme Wilkes, Chief Medical Officer at Connect Health, said: “Resistance exercises using gravity or weights to strengthen muscles are commonly recognised as contributing to musculoskeletal health and recovery from injury, as well as for some in ‘looking good’. What is not well known is that research has found muscle-strengthening activities are independently associated with a variety of improved health outcomes including increasing life expectancy, improvements in heart function and mental health.

“The mental and physical wellbeing will reduce pain sensitivity which undoubtedly helped Geraldine and would for many in pain.

“Recent data suggests that only 10 to 30 percent of adults meet the muscle-strengthening activity recommendations.

“As we get older there is not an age where people should become sedentary – resistance exercises should remain part of life to the grave, providing a better quality of life until that day. This should include whole body resisted exercises, so arms and legs.

“As well as older people continuing to resist weights, their friends and families should encourage this and not conspire to reduce such essential wellbeing training. Seeing an elderly person in the gym should be a normal event.”

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