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The Fullness of Midlife

"Know that you are capable. You can move forward."

"Know that you are capable. You can move forward."

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

Deborah Robinson with Dr. Barb

Deborah RobinsonDeborah Robinson is president and CEO of Fitness Choice Enterprises, as well as program director for The Foundation for Sports Conditioning. Her interest bloomed from athletic and dance engagement in high school and college, leading to a practice in helping teams and individuals to improve overall strength, dynamic flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, balance, and trunk stability, all of which enhance health and quality of life.

Listen now.


Dr. Barb: Joining me for conversation today is Deborah Robinson. Deborah has been an expert in fitness and sports training for many years. Early in her career, she was an aerobics instructor at Jane Fonda Workout Studios, and appeared in several of her workout videos. You may have seen her. She’s worked with a number of professional and academic sports teams. The company she now leads, Fitness Choice Enterprises, offers personal fitness training in southern California for people aged 13 to 93. Welcome! Thanks for joining me!

Deborah: Hi there Barbara. How are you doing?

Dr. Barb: I wanted to start out by talking about what obviously you know best. In my area I have a lot of conversations with women about fitness and wellness, and what I’ve read about your work describes a very comprehensive approach to fitness; that you’re focusing on strength, flexibility, balance, cardiovascular health. I obviously admire and value that comprehensive approach. I’m just wondering about how you bring this to your client, and how you incorporate such a broad approach to this.

The goal is physical literacy.Deborah: Well, I let the body of the client tell me exactly what it needs through evaluation and just talking to the client to see what they can tolerate. My oldest client is actually 97, and I’ve been with her since she was 81 years old. She is pushing up, she is doing agility ladder; if you know anything about that, that’s the square things that professional athletes use to make their feet a little faster. She’s doing that at 97 years old. I clap my hands every time I see her because [laughs] if I’m allowed to live that long, I’d want to be as mobile as she is. And also, Barb, the goal in my practice is to help a person with physical literacy; teaching them how to manage their body in space as they move around in everyday life.

Dr. Barb: Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that term, physical literacy, but it’s a great way of communicating, again, what you are trying to do: that more broad sense of being.

Deborah: Yes. Exactly.

Dr. Barb: What are some of the things you do with an individual when you talk about initial assessments?

Deborah: Well, I’m looking at their balance. For instance, can they stand on one leg, can they maintain that for a count of ten? Which leg is weaker? I also have them close their eyes and do the same balance test. Then I go into a dynamic test where they are moving from side to side and holding that balance for again a count of ten. Mobility in the shoulder joint, trying to understand what that’s about. Can they sit down and stand comfortably and with control? And can they do it ten times without being out of breath?

So you do an assessment, especially with a 90-plus year old, that’s easy, but if you know after two repetitions they’re having trouble, obviously you don’t go to ten. The assessments would again depend on the person. Now I have a person 58 years old, I just started with her maybe 3 months ago. We went through a series of assessments. You know, what was her core strength, what was her flexibility, what was her extensor muscles in her back, what were they like? Then you make a decision whether or not should I train her or should she go to the physical therapist first? In her case, it was the physical therapist because she had movement patterns that weren’t quite right. So if we move with a movement pattern that isn’t quite right, it’s best to have a physical therapist look at them first so that you lower your risk of injury. So that’s kind of how I do it.

Dr. Barb: Yes, that’s fascinating because for so many women who I interact with, remaining active becomes somewhat of an obstacle because they are working with plantar fasciitis or a sore hip or a bad shoulder, and so in the midst of my day it’s hard for me to necessarily recommend what kind of a fitness routine they might be able to do and it’s certainly not my expertise, so I can’t make that recommendation.

So, having them see a physical therapist is oftentimes a good place to start if people are working around an injury or are most trainers pretty well trained to make those assessments?

Deborah: One has to do it case by case, more or less.  If it’s something that they have already gone through a physical therapist with, then the best choice is for the coach, the trainer, to call the PT and say, “What’s the deal? What was the end result, and how can I help them based on what you know about them?” Because, remember, you are seeing this person for the first time. It’s not like you’ve known them. You got to get a history, and an assessment, and an understanding after you’ve watched how they move, too. And if it’s to go back to the physical therapist, then the coach should go with the person, so you both have an idea and you work as a team in a collaborative experience rather than, you know, me knowing everything, because I don’t know everything. But, I can know more as I get more information.

Dr. Barb: Do you refer to yourself as a trainer or a coach?

Deborah: I actually like “fitness professional” because I’ve worked with teams. You can’t really call me a personal trainer. You can’t call me a trainer; really I’m more of a strength and conditioning specialist in that venue. I call myself a fitness professional. I do a lot of things with a lot of people if the situation presents itself.

Dr. Barb: What areas do you find especially valuable to women as they grow older? Do you have a couple of general recommendations for women to keep in the forefront of their awareness just to try to improve the aging process?

Deborah: Keep moving correctly. Keep moving with good mechanics… feet straight, pushing off of your feet.  Feet are very, very important and somehow or another, we forget that they are attached to us! You know? [laughs]

I know they are in shoes, we don’t see them a lot, we go to get our pedicures, but doggone, those feet need to be massaged, you need the balls on them, they need to be alive, the blood needs to circulate, you need to separate your toes because you need to push off of them. If you start to walk like a duck, there’s a problem. [laughs]

Dr. Barb: [Laughs] Interesting!

Deborah: You need to keep the feet straight so you can turn on your buttocks. If your buttocks is flat, then that’s a problem. Your back doesn’t have much support. There is a reason why all these muscles in our bodies exist. It’s not just for the pretty pants, it’s not just for the shape we want to look at. It is absolutely there for a purpose to maintain mobility in our bodies.

Dr. Barb: As you are talking about some of this, and as a gynecologist and thinking about the dynamic of the connectedness, I’m wondering if you have awareness or speak into pelvic floor and the importance of pelvic floor health for women as well.

Deborah: Let me share! [laughs]

Dr. Barb: Please do! [laughs]

Deborah: Okay, I have to admit, I just had my first experience with a pelvic floor practitioner. Wow! What an education that was. My 97-year old has a problem with incontinence. Her urologist told her to go to a pelvic floor practitioner, and I went with her. What a wonderful experience we had together!

By learning and understanding what Kegels mean–I don’t think we really understand what they mean. I don’t think we are teaching it properly, in my profession, because we don’t spend enough time on that. But that pelvic floor is extremely important to know how to do the Kegels, and to do them well.

One of the exercises was to stop your urine. You know, you stop your urine, you urinate, stop your urine, urinate. That gives you ideas of how you can control your urine–and that’s just one of them. That was a good experience, and if anyone can find a pelvic floor practitioner, and if you teach it, Doctor, they should definitely understand what that means because it will definitely help them and keep them away from Depends.

Dr. Barb: Yes, and I would agree. Pelvic floor therapists are great people to have on our teams. And I think it extends sometimes to posture and back pain, and even things even beyond bladder and bowel function. As you mention, the feet and not always having awareness of their critical path in how we function. I think pelvic floor can be one of the sneaky areas too that we tend to ignore and maybe don’t put enough emphasis or importance on its function.

Deborah: And you brought up another critical: core. You know you hear the word core all the time. Core exercise. Core exercise. What is that all about?

We are all athletes, actually, at different levels of intensity.The core exercises transfer into performance. It’s not just an exercise. It is to teach you how to maintain core strength. Dr. Stewart McGill said, “It’s a brace.” You brace yourself when you pick up your child. You brace yourself when you pick up a bucket of water, and knowing that that exercise transfers into their everyday life. We don’t emphasize that enough. Because it does. We are performers. We have to perform because we are all athletes, actually, on different levels – different levels of intensity. But we are still athletes because we have to get up and perform, just like your professional athlete has to perform. We just perform differently, right?

Dr. Barb: Exactly.

Deborah: We need to understand what those exercises are and how they transfer into making the bed, how they transfer into reaching for something. And those shoulder blades! Man, if I could glue them onto somebody’s back, I would glue them down! Because that’s part of posture. Those shoulder blades need to be down. Not necessarily squeezed together, but at least down and with the chest so you can breathe better. You know all of these things go into moving.

Dr. Barb: Yes, interesting.

I recently published a blog post about menopausal weight gain and how women often approach and go through menopause, and weight gain, not always, but often is a part of that. I think it’s not always well understood or anticipated, and many women do find themselves 10 to 20 pounds heavier at age 55 or 65 than they were when they were 45. I’m just wondering if your professional experience would have any insight into that or what you might recommend. Is part of your expertise also around weight and nutrition?

Deborah: You know what I do in terms of nutrition? I have a wonderful friend that has published about four books, and she’s a nutritionist. Her name is Susan Dopart, and she is my go-to for nutrition because she can sit down, and she can talk to the client. And then what I do, I just do simple “let’s talk about it.” Are you being clean? And then in terms of intensity, we work as hard as they can.

Keep moving.The encouragement is to keep moving because we get more inactive as we get older. We don’t get more active. When we were younger, we were more active. Whether that was with kids, or things to do, or work or whatever, we’re kind of retired and we’re not moving. So the encouragement to move, to walk, to push, to pull, to move side to side, move in your house – you know, watch TV and march in place. You know things that you’ve got to do to help with that weight gain, you know to just increase the movement patterns. Just increase; increase your movement.

That’s about what happens when I meet a 58-year old person that is 20 pounds overweight. Listening to her, her kids are older, she’s not moving enough. And then also, if there’s hormone therapy they need, then that’s another referral. Because, again, I don’t know everything, but I do know some things. [laughs]

Dr. Barb: Yes, so that 58-year old who is probably going to be in my office tomorrow. [laughs]

What sorts of things do you use to encourage people to just move more? I think our culture has incorporated being sedentary in such a huge way, and I’m just wondering if you have phrases or ways to communicate encouragement or simple things, you know something other than going to the gym for 45 minutes?

We have choices... we have a choice to be active.Deborah: You know what’s interesting? I just left that 58-year old, and she did an incredible job. We’ve been together for a short period of time. Okay, what has helped her? I can only talk about her. What has helped her is her body awareness. Understanding where her body is in place in space, and understanding where to put herself. Secondly, to understand that she can move, she can be more active. It’s a choice. We have choices. We have a choice not to be active, and we have a choice to be active. And then decide what intensity that is at the right time. You’ve got choices.

You have to encourage yourself. You have to sit down and say, “I can do this, and I have the will to do this.” “I’m able to do this.” “I may have to do it slower, and that is okay.” Be okay with where you are. Be okay with where you are because where you are is okay! Again, it’s okay! Just start. They just have to start. Step out of the bed and begin to walk. And walk up and down the hall more times than you did yesterday.

Dr. Barb: So, it’s never too late to start.

Deborah: Absolutely, never. The 81-year old, if she would have given it up, she never had exercised before when she was 81, and it was all about taking it slow. Having her get the confidence in herself, not in me. In herself, knowing she’s able to do something. And at 97, she’s still exercising! Like I said, pushing on the edge of the desk, doing agility ladder, if you know anything about a TRX–look it up–she is pulling her own body weight, she’s pulling tubing, she sits and stands for 12, with 5-pound weights in each hand. She can pick up her dog, Polly! [laughs]

Dr. Barb: Right! When you think about the importance of bending over and picking up a dog, and how that enriches a person’s life! The mechanics required to do that really are pretty remarkable! It doesn’t take long to imagine how it’s important to keep up some of that function.

Deborah: Yes, and progression is the key. You don’t go somewhere and they start you out at 100 – no! You go from zero to 1 . You know, start off slow because then you keep exercise adherence. You will exercise longer, you will want to exercise because you won’t get discouraged. The key is not to be discouraged.

If you walk into a gym and you don’t want to take that evaluation because you don’t want to hear it, talk to the person and see if they can figure out something else so you can start to exercise. I mean, you’ve got to be your own boss. This is your body. Don’t be a victim of anything because that’s the other thing. You know, you can’t be a victim of the gym, or any coach or anybody. You are in control here. It’s your body.

Dr. Barb: And for those women who might feel intimidated by a gym or a trainer, or the affordability of a gym or a trainer, is it possible? Do you have any resources that you can direct individuals to as far as online or apps? Do you have a couple of favorites that you utilize in your populations?

Deborah: You know, I really can’t say I use an app. Walking to me is the easiest thing to do. Just start walking, drinking more water and eating as clean as you can. Get away from some of those processed foods. And just start walking and then think about going to a gym in your area, stand there and watch a class, or talk with someone and see if you want to be there.

But just start walking. There’s nothing wrong with walking, even if it’s the mall. Walk in the mall. Go up the stairs. Walk around. Don’t stop and look in the stores [laughs], just keep walking.

Okay, today I’m going to walk five minutes, and then if I have to sit down, I will. And then I’ll get up and walk another five minutes. And just do that until you begin to get stronger. Everyone has a mall everywhere. I just totally know this! [laughs] Because they want to sell things. The malls are safe and they are easy.

Dr. Barb: Yes, yes, good!

I’ve heard that you have recently taken up competitive power lifting! Is that factual?

Deborah: Ah, yeah… let me tell you about that!

Dr. Barb: Yes, please do!

Deborah: [laughs] Okay, I’m 66, so I’m not a kid. I dance professionally and I ran track, I high-jumped, you know – in dirt – it’s so easy. It was definitely not those beautiful little rubber things, you know padded things that they do now, and I did what is called a roll. I like high intensity, and I’m a little crazy. Okay, as long as I’m crazy by myself, I’m good.

[Deborah and Barb laugh]

Deborah: I am a competitive weight lifter. I do Olympic lifts. I snatch, clean, and jerk in competition, in my age group. My next meet is August sixth . I’m excited. I’m always “can’t wait to get to the gym.” This is not something you do at home, by the way, and I wouldn’t advise it if you’re not really into heavy weights.

Now in terms of bones… can I tell you about bones and heavy weight?

Dr. Barb: Yes please!

Deborah: My bone density increased tremendously when I started to snatch, clean, and jerk, when I started Olympic lifting. Yah!

Dr. Barb: Yeah, we do talk about that resistance work and, while it doesn’t have to be Olympic style, it can be something less than that. I think again, we forget about our upper bodies, don’t we, and the importance of doing something with some resistance.

Deborah: Yes. And in order for the bones to really respond, you can’t do high repetitions with 5 weights/5 pounds. You have to have a little weight on that so that 12 reps, 11-12 should be difficult.

Dr. Barb: How much training does it take in your average week to be able to continue to compete at the level you are competing?

Deborah: I’m in the gym three days a week for about an hour and a half. But, understand this is not like the gym. If I am getting 80 pounds over my head, I’ve got to say I’ve got to sit down for a minute! [laughs with Barb]

Dr. Barb: I’ve only said that this is audio only and not video because I’d love to see a demonstration and see you at it!  [laughs with Deborah]

Deborah: If someone is there on August 6, maybe I can send you a video of the competition.

Dr. Barb: That would be great! Are there other women – you’ve disclosed your age – are there other women near your age doing this sport, or do they have to put you in a category with much younger women because there aren’t other mature women, so to speak, doing this?

Deborah: No! I’m a master’s athlete in weightlifting. There is a whole bunch of us!

Dr. Barb: Cool!

Deborah: My teammate is 71! My goal is to beat Laurie. She can’t beat me! [laughs]

Dr. Barb: That’s great! Well, you are certainly an inspiration to hear about possibilities and that incentive to just push a little bit more. Like you said, just always progress. Just always a little bit more. I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind as well.

What are some of the rewards in the work you’ve been doing in fitness? Can you summarize it in a couple of points?

Deborah: Some of my rewards is to watch the teenage athletes that I’ve trained – I trained a girls’ basketball team for eight seasons here in California – and to watch those little girls – if I can say little, they are short. Now you know basketball is typically a tall-person sport. But they had so much conditioning that they out ran the taller girl and would out shoot them – in the fourth quarter. That was exciting! To me that was absolutely one of those “cry-able” moments.

All my children, oh my God! And to watch my 97-year old still have the will to move and to appreciate her body that she has. That’s another “cry-able” moment, you know. Where you go, “Wow! That’s so awesome!” And to watch another person fight through some of their own physical stuff and embrace themselves as they are. That’s another physical moment that I’ve had with people – not a physical but an emotional moment – I’ve had with people. I think those are some of my big points.

Dr. Barb: It is! It’s remarkable changes that are occurring with you, I’m sure. And I just go back to in health care what we understand is that a body in motion stays in motion, and that, like you mentioned early on, going from sitting to standing, how important that is in remaining in your own home and able to do some of your own things. Again, I think we forget that we are aging, and someday we are going to be aged. Hopefully live that long and the necessity to remain independent depends on the functionality. It’s great to hear your words of encouragement to kind of keep moving forward for women.

Do you have any other important points that you’d like to share with the audience today, Deborah?

Know that you are capable. You can move forward.Deborah: I think I’ve covered most everything, other than just saying that you have to know that you are capable. You can move forward. It doesn’t matter where you are. Just start doing something, even if that means clapping your hands more. It’s still moving. Even if that means you’re reaching up and down while you are sitting down. It’s still moving. And I was reading an article about, in the car being fidgety, in the car – it’s still moving. You don’t have to sit there and just be still, especially when you are in LA with the 405 – oh my God – [laughs] – you’re going start dancing otherwise you’re going to start screaming! [laughs]

So just move. And it doesn’t matter how small. You just have to start.

Dr. Barb: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I appreciate your work and your insights and what you were willing to share with our listeners.

Deborah: Thank you Barb. It’s been a pleasure.  

After her competition on August 6, Deborah did provide a video! Watch and marvel:




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