How I Started Weightlifting at Age 47

Sally Barden Johnson

I started weightlifting when I turned 47, and I’ve never looked back.

I walked into my local CrossFit gym six years ago, ready to do whatever it took to get stronger. Not because I was seeking a longer life, but because I was seeking a better one – a life where illness, fear, and depression weren’t realities.

How I Got Sick on a Low-Fat Diet

I received my education in nutrition during the height of the low-fat craze of the early ’90s, when running and cardio training were still all the rage. Subsequently, for many years, I counseled clients according to the standards I was taught: stick to a high-carb, low-fat diet. Following my own advice, I ate plenty of grains, avoided fats, and did cardio exercises several days a week without any real strength training.

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Unfortunately, by the age of 46, I was forced to admit that I hadn’t achieved any of my personal or professional goals. The apparent failure of mainstream nutrition to prevent obesity and illness was clear. Too many of my clients had difficulty losing weight or keeping it off, and they weren’t able to stave off chronic disease. Personally, I was experiencing a steep decline in my own health as well.

The women I met at this wedding were close to my age (mid-40s), but instead of lethargic and achy like me, they radiated a vibrant energy, and were lean, strong, and happy.

I was sick with IBS, GERD, gum disease, and a variety of other chronic conditions. I was tired all the time and although my BMI was in the normal range, I had no muscle definition and I was gaining fat around my midsection and on my upper arms. I wore oversized shirts with long sleeves during the South Texas summers despite the triple-digit heat in an attempt to hide my body. Disillusioned, physically debilitated, and emotionally drained, I was at an all-time low and considered changing careers.

Everything changed when I attended a wedding in Costa Rica, just one week before my 47th birthday.

The women I met at this wedding were close to my age (mid-40s), but instead of lethargic and achy like me, they radiated a vibrant energy, and were lean, strong, and happy. Ready to live life to the fullest, they would wake up early to take surfing lessons, and to take on gymnastics tricks like handstand walking.

When they told me they did CrossFit, something in me clicked. Whatever these women had going on, I wanted it.

Until this revelation, all I knew about CrossFit was that it was some kind of strenuous workout system. This made CrossFit seem pretty intimidating, but the stories the women told made me realize that I was stronger than I knew, and that overcoming these perceived limitations was part of the journey.

I wasn’t entirely convinced, but I was ready to try. As soon as I got home from my transformative trip, I walked right into my local CrossFit gym and changed my life.

Overcoming My Anxiety

Real weightlifting was new and scary to me. I was so nervous before those first few workouts that I would have trouble getting out of the car after parking at the gym. Even with scaling down all the exercises to my newbie level, I could barely keep up with everyone.

CrossFit involves performing functional exercises, like moving large loads very quickly. At first, I could barely move myself, so you could forget adding weights into the mix. To help me ease into the new regimen, my coach put a light PVC pipe into my hands and showed me how to move it with awareness and purpose. That’s how I started lifting – not with fancy kettlebells, but with very unglamorous, awkward lengths of PVC pipe.

Learning the proper techniques for lifting was like adding a whole new language to my lexicon, with terms like WODs (workout of the day), AMRAPs (as many rounds as possible), cleans, jerks, snatches, and deadlifts (classic Olympic lifts). Lifting was hard and uncomfortable, and I was not a natural. I had to really push past my comfort zone and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s where the magic happens. Just like all of life’s best lessons, progress and results come from difficulty.

How CrossFit and Paleo Changed My Life at 47

My CrossFit-Paleo journey changed my life in three major ways. First, it led me towards optimizing my health. Second, it gave me confidence that I never knew was possible. Third, and perhaps best of all, it made me happy.

My digestion improved, I lost weight, and my inflammatory health issues resolved themselves naturally.

Incredible things started happening as soon as I practiced CrossFitting several times a week and picked up a Paleo diet. My digestion improved, I lost weight, and my inflammatory health issues resolved themselves naturally. The heavy brain fog lifted, and I looked and felt brighter than ever.

Plus, I could feel myself getting stronger from my new weightlifting routine. I could do things I thought I would never be able to do, like real push ups, and pull ups starting from a dead hang. I saw my progress in CrossFit unfold as I moved a weighted bar from the floor over my head. I could even run eight-minute miles, a speed I never achieved from doing cardio alone. Now six years into my CrossFit journey, I can walk a few steps on my hands. Boom!

My own success gave me all the confidence I needed to break through the fear.

With renewed confidence, I traded my oversized T-shirts for sleeveless tops appropriate for South Texas summers. Feeling inspired, I started a blog about my new CrossFit-Paleo lifestyle and started a small Paleo nutrition business. Striking out on my own was terrifying, but the knowledge I had was too important not to share. My own success gave me all the confidence I needed to break through the fear. Seeking a larger platform from which to reach a greater number of people, I started working as a nutritionist at PaleoPlan. Four years later, I’m still as passionate about sharing my experience and knowledge with anyone willing to try something new to start feeling better.

Ah, did I mention I feel happier? Inflammation is associated with depression, and resolving inflammation put that sadness right into remission. While calming the inflammation is a huge part of it, the endorphins produced from exercise have a positive effect on mood as well. When your body is stressed from physical exertion, your brain releases endorphins that block pain and produce feelings of euphoria. Needless to say, I feel much more resilient and ready to tackle life’s problems after a good workout.

You Can Turnaround Your Health at Any Age

In just a few months, my CrossFit-Paleo journey took me to a place I had been trying in vain to get to for 20 years with traditional methods. It turns out all I had to do was eat real food and consistently work out at a level just beyond my comfort zone.

You don’t have to choose strictly CrossFit for exercise or the Paleo diet for nutrition. However, in order to feel good again, it will help to engage in some kind of muscle strengthening activity and ditch processed, inflammatory foods.

Even if your budget is tight, you have limited time, and no exercise equipment, you can build stamina, muscle, and strength for free, anywhere, using just your body weight!

  • Build your cardio tolerance with a burpee challenge: Start with one burpee and add one each day for ten, twenty, or perhaps one hundred burpees! Your burpee goal is up to you, but make sure you’re challenging yourself.
  • Strengthen your core with planks, bridges, supermans, and other exercise that activate your abs, lower back, and glutes.
  • Sculpt your arms with push ups, arm extensions, tricep dips, and more.
  • Build up your legs and backside with squats!

If you’re looking for more structure and guidance, YouTube provides plenty of options, but I can personally vouch for PaleoFit created by my good friend and PaleoPlan colleague, Max Shippee. Max has designed the workouts to be scalable to multiple levels so everyone from the beginner to the advanced athlete can get a great workout several times a week. The best part: You can try PaleoFit for free and see if it’s right for you.

To make low-carb, processed-food-free eating easier, you can try PaleoPlan’s meal plans for free, too! The meal plans are never duplicated. They are created by me every week, using the delicious recipes in our recipe center!