Happy Birthday, Ruth Bader Ginsburg! The inimitable Supreme Court justice, also known as RBG, turns 86 on Friday.
The justice, who has become something of a pop-culture and feminist icon in recent years, owes part of her longevity in life and career to her twice-weekly workouts with personal trainer Bryant Johnson. She’s been on the court for 26 years, and there’s good news for those who aspire to stay in their jobs (or at least enjoy life) for as long as she has: Ginsburg’s long-time trainer says it’s easier for older Americans to get in shape than they may think.
About 80% of seniors have at least one chronic disease and 25% struggle with some type of mental health disorder like dementia or depression, according to the National Council on Aging. But don’t write off health issues as just another part of getting older, says Johnson, 54, who is based in Washington, D.C. Many of them don’t have to be inevitable.
In fact, physical activity, whether you start tomorrow or you’ve been doing it for 30 years, is key to staying healthy and preventing (or at least mitigating) these kinds of common health issues that plague many of the older population.
“It’s never too late,” he says. “The only obstacle that you have to really deal with is the obstacle of self. Don’t say you can’t begin. You’re not too old until the party stops moving.”
Here are Johnson’s top tips for how folks can get in shape like a Supreme Court justice and save their hard-earned money in the process:
Just Start Moving
“The first thing I tell everyone is just do something,” says Johnson, a certified personal trainer and author of the book The RBG Workout, who has been working with Ginsburg for the last 20 years. “Move. Doesn’t matter. Just do something.”
Once you show up mentally, the physical part is easy, he says. Don’t second guess your physical abilities just because you’re older.
“If you’re looking at the senior population, they’re already resilient,” Johnson encourages. “They wouldn’t be the senior population if they weren’t resilient and they didn’t realize the commitment it took to be a senior person.”
The body is made to move, and the age-old adage is true — if you don’t move it, you lose it, he says. If you are someone who feels overwhelmed by the gym, don’t sweat it.
“If you like to walk, start by walking,” Johnson advises. “If you like to dance, then dance. Bowl. Badminton. Whatever you like to do, do some type of movement always.”
Don’t get caught up with trying to do a whole hour a day, either. Start small.
“Think about saving [money],” he says. “If you do a little bit, consistently over a period of time, it will add up. Exercise is the same thing.”
Ginsburg started training with Johnson after her first bout with cancer in the 90s, when her husband noticed she looked especially frail after undergoing treatment, says Johnson (always consult with your doctor before doing strenuous or new exercise if you have a medical condition). They do most of her training together at the Supreme Court gym, though some of their sessions take place at her home. But you don’t have to belong to a fancy gym or hire a professional to begin building some muscle.
You Already Have Everything You Need To Work Out
Although walking and dancing are good starting points, body weight training — that is, using your own weight to do a workout — is the type of exercise that is most valuable for seniors, many of whom need to build up their bone density and physical strength overall, Johnson says. Exercises that improve balance are also important, since that capacity tends to diminish with age.
You can do body weight training, which helps build bone density, at home for free. Take squats, for example. A squat is simply sitting down and standing up 10 times on a chair. If you want to add more weight to your squat, just hold a book or a backpack, or even your grandchild. You can also buy resistance tubes, an inexpensive exercise tool that costs as little as $5-10, to improve your workouts.
Johnson recommends RBG’s famous push-ups for all seniors, and says he thinks they’ve become one of her favorite exercises since she mastered them.
“When she was able to finally do push-ups off of her knees, she lit up,” he says. “It was like part of her soul just came back, that strength.” She worked her way to up that by doing push-ups off the wall.
A round of push-ups is important because “it works so many different parts of the body.” Start like Ginsburg against the wall, then move to your knees (use a pad or pillow for support if you need to, or lean against a table or desk instead if you have any kind of knee issues or injury) and then try them from the floor once you are comfortable.
Another senior-specific exercise Johnson recommends to his clients is practicing the art of falling and getting back up again. Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries in senior citizens in the U.S., according to NCOA, and there are more than 2.8 million emergency visits for these falls every year.
“Just get down onto the floor and then get up off of the floor,” he says. “That works so many muscles in your body, it’s ridiculous. Why do I have you do that? Well what happens if you fall? You have to know how to get up off of the floor.”
An added bonus? Exercise also releases endorphins into the brain, which helps keep you happy, in addition to offering you a mental break from your job if you have an intense workload like RBG.
Don’t Make Excuses (You Have RGB to Thank for This One)
About a year ago, an older man told Johnson he was too old to work out.
“Yeah? She’s 85.” He says he told the man about Ginsburg. He then tried to tell Johnson he was too busy to start exercising.
“I said, she’s a Supreme Court justice.” And when he said his back problems were too bad for physical activity?
“She’s been through three bouts of cancer,” Johnson replied. You are never too old or too weak, he says. And he believes seniors already intuitively understand this.
Lastly, you surely want to spend less of your retirement savings on doctor’s visits and more on vacations or other fun things. Johnson had a friend who told him she couldn’t afford to retire because she wouldn’t be able to afford her medications for high blood pressure, cholesterol, arthritis and diabetes. He told her that was ironic: If she started working out, she could most likely significantly improve all of those medical conditions on her own.
“You retire, but you can’t even enjoy your retirement because you spend all your time in a doctor’s office instead of enjoying the money that you made,” he says. If you exercise, you can reduce or avoid those ailments, and hold on to the money you otherwise would have spent to treat them.
The bottom line, according to Johnson?
“Exercise is a silver bullet that increases your quality of life.”