Q&A: World’s Oldest Performing Female Bodybuilder

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Washington Post Magazine profile of Ernestine Shepherd.
Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post / Getty Images

National Senior Health and Fitness Day was celebrated Thursday by aging gym rats everywhere. To mark the occasion, Healthland spoke with the world’s oldest performing female bodybuilder, Ernestine Shepherd.

At nearly 77 years old, Shepherd is no couch potato. Every day, she wakes up at 2:30 a.m. and runs 10 miles before 5 a.m. After that, it’s on to the gym, where she works as a personal trainer.

Shepherd wasn’t always so ripped and fast. She got interested in bodybuilding when she was 56 years old, with her sister Velvet. When her sister died shortly after from a brain aneurysm, Shepherd continued their dream of becoming female bodybuilders, and in 2010 she was crowned the World’s Oldest Performing Female Bodybuilder by Guinness World Records. Read on to learn about Shepherd’s daily routine and what keeps her motivated to stay in shape.

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Here’s an average day in the life of this septuagenarian bodybuilder extraordinaire:

2:30 a.m. Wake up. Meditate and read devotions from the Bible. Eat a snack of a bagel with peanut butter and hard-boiled egg whites. Drink 16 oz. of water.
3:45 a.m. Head to nearby park and run 10 miles. Go home and eat breakfast of oatmeal, three hard-boiled egg whites and a tablespoon of walnuts. Drink 8 oz. of liquid egg whites.
8 a.m. Head to the gym and work out for 1 hour and 45 minutes.
10 to 11 a.m.: Train a group of senior men and women. The oldest woman is 89 years old.
11 a.m.: Train four to five women in the gym. Drink another 8-oz. glass of liquid egg whites.
1 p.m.: Go home and eat a can of tuna, a cup of spinach, ½ cup of sweet potato and drink an 8-oz. glass of water. REST.
6 to 7 p.m.: Teach another class at the gym. Head home and eat turkey, brown rice, broccoli, more egg whites and drink lots of water.
10 to 10:30 p.m.: Drink one more glass of liquid egg whites. Go to bed.

TIME: What keeps you motivated?
Shepherd: I made a promise to [my sister] that I would follow her dream, and it has become mine. She said that we wanted to inspire and motivate others to live a healthy, happy and fit lifestyle, to let them know that age is nothing but a number, and you can get fit. After my sister died, I ended up with high blood pressure, panic attacks, high cholesterol, you name it, I had it. After a lot of prayer and help from my family, I could get on my feet again, and I started running. I found out I didn’t need to take all that medication I was taking. My blood pressure went down, I stopped feeling unhappy, I stopped feeling depressed.

People I know and people I don’t know inspire me to keep going. They tell me how I’m helping them, and that was what my sister’s and my dream was. So as long as I have breath in my body, that’s what I want to do.

Is there anyone you look up to for motivation?
You will laugh when I tell you. I just love some Sylvester Stallone. I was inspired by the Rocky Balboa character and I found it was not about how hard you can get hit, but how you keep moving forward. That is how winning is done. The Rocky movies make me ready to take on the world. I use my abilities to love the world back to health and keep my sister’s spirit alive. My mantra is determined, dedicated, disciplined, to be fit.

How did you get into bodybuilding specifically?
When my sister and I began working out, she said, “We are going to be two of the oldest competitive bodybuilders.” She said we were going to make the Guinness Book of World Records by the end as two sisters. Before she died she looked at me and said, “If I don’t make it, you have to continue what we started. You have to make the Guinness Book of World Records, and you have to become a bodybuilder.” I met the former Mr. Universe Yohnnie Shambourger and I asked him if he would work with me because I wanted to become a bodybuilder. I was 71 years of age when we started. He said, “You are going on a long journey, and you are going to have to follow everything I tell you to do. Do you think you can do it?” I shook my head and said yes. In a matter of seven months, he had me ready to be on the stage. We haven’t looked back since then.

You were 56 when you and your sister first started working out. What was your perspective on fitness at that time?
I was such a prissy woman. I didn’t want to do any exercising. My sister was very active. When she started working out, she was 99 lb. and skin and bones. She had to gain enough weight to meet her goal of 140 lb., which she did. I was 145 lb. I had to come down in weight because I had the cellulite, I had the fat in the back, the legs were — Oh, my God — they were a mess. We were complete opposites.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I really don’t because I have acid reflux and I have to be mindful. But I don’t take any medication for that, because I know what foods trigger it for me. I don’t yearn for pizza because I know that would do me in. I don’t yearn for chocolate cake and citrus fruits. I know that would only affect my esophagus.

You know what I like? I like wearing skimpy clothes. Oh, yes I do. I love to have my back out and my stomach out. I like the cat suits — all of those things. I couldn’t wear them years ago.

Your faith is a big part of your life. How has it helped you?
In order to get on my feet, I had to do a lot of praying. I didn’t want to go to church in the beginning after my sister died. One day my mother came to me and said, “Name 10 things God has done to keep you alive this long.” I told her I couldn’t because I was angry with God. But one night, in a dream, my sister came to me and said, “You are not doing what I asked you to do.” I brooded over it for a while, but finally one day I went to church and a song was playing that tore me up. It went: “Here I am Lord. It is I Lord. I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” The next thing I knew, I said, “Restore to me the joy of my salvation. Restore to me the joy of each new day. Give me back the love I once had.” From that day on, I got myself together and started doing what I am doing.

What advice do you have for people 50-plus to get in shape?
I would tell people ages 50 and older who haven’t done any type of exercise before to start out very, very slowly. Don’t jump in with both feet, because you don’t want to stop. Take your time and found out what you like to do. Maybe it’s walking. You can get fit doing that. Some may like to do aerobics in the pool. Some may want to lift weights or dance. Find what you like and stick with it. But remember, no matter what you do, you have to be determined. You have to be dedicated and disciplined. It takes four things to get fit: eat correctly, drink plenty of water, do some type of strength training and do some kind of cardio. Don’t listen to anyone who says you’re too old or starting out too late. Once you start exercising, honey, it’s a whole new ball game.

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