In the middle of the cafe, Mary Jaksch drops to the floor and starts doing press ups.
Two middle-aged men look a bit startled over their flat whites. They would be more surprised if they knew her age or her exercise regime; they would be less surprised if they knew Mary.
She was demonstrating the military style push-ups she did when she turned 70 last November. It’s a tradition at her Nelson Seido Karate dojo to complete your age in push-ups on your birthday.
Mary, a fifth dan blackbelt, dismissed a colleague’s suggestion to take the easy way out by doing the push-ups from her knees. “I wouldn’t be seen dead doing that,” she told him.
Instead, after a two-hour black belt class she polished off the 70 with straight legs, to the cheers of her colleagues.
Pushing herself physically is practising what she preaches – youthful or positive ageing. The main idea is that you should relish getting older, that with the right attitude and effort you can have the time of your life.
After her press ups she said karate students in their 20s told her they could not have done the challenge now, let alone at 70.
“My answer to them was why not? All you have to do is keep going and rev up.
“That’s when I realised that so many people, no matter what age, have this idea of this terrible downward slope as they age. They can’t do things, their body sags, they get weaker and so on.”
In typical fashion, Mary decided to do something about spreading the message that retirement doesn’t mean a weary resignation.
A whole lot, in Mary’s case.
She came to New Zealand from Germany as a classical flautist, in the 1980s became the first female director of the Nelson School of Music, changed careers to become a counsellor and psychotherapist, and then in her 60s took up blogging about the practice of Zen meditation (she is a Zen master) and, later, launched another blog on writing.
There were triggers for those diverging paths, but they also highlight her willingness to experiment, “my question is always what if…?”.
The first switch came when she was still a classical musician and got involved as a volunteer in a halfway house for young people with drug problems.
“I thought, when I’m standing on the stage playing, whose life am I changing? Since then that question has been a guiding light for me.”
So she studied to become a counsellor and psychotherapist. She was making more of a difference, but says eventually the effort of being in a “flattened state” to receive her clients’ stories took a toll. She worried she might not be able to bounce back.
Her move to blogging came after a builder left her high and dry with an unfinished house that not only swallowed a nest egg but left her with a big debt.
“That was a low point. At the time I was 60 years old, what next?”
Her son Sebastian Grodd suggested writing a blog. “What’s a blog?” she asked him. Her first Goodlife Zen blog post had three subscribers, her son, her best friend and her cat Sweetie.
It has grown exponentially and internationally since then. Together with her other site, Write to Done, which has writing tips and blogging advice, she says her audience now numbers about three million.
It’s unsurprising that she has opened up another chapter with her books, and another physical challenge.
She wanted to see how a 70-year-old body would respond to four months of a sustained, intense workouts. To control her experiment she enlisted the help of Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology sport, recreation and and exercise diploma students, subjecting herself to the indignities of the caliper body fat test, exercises to measure her baseline fitness, balance and co-ordination.
She also did a specialised test for telomeres, the protective casings on the end of chromosomes which fray as we age. The results showed hers corresponded to that of a 45-year-old.
But at her first hour-long class at the Whakatu HQ “box” or gym when she was introduced to the mix of aerobic exercise, Olympic weightlifting and calisthenics she admits to a “kind of wide-eyed with shock” .
Those are the moments to embrace what’s been described as the “ouch factor,” Mary says, the mental and physical effort that signals rejuvenation.
She stuck at it and four months on she says her strength and mobility have markedly increased. Along the way she “accidentally” signed up to a transTasman crossfit competition, finishing fifth in New Zealand in the 60-plus category.
NMIT exercise students Ricky Silva and Isaiah Stevenson put Mary through her paces to gauge her baseline fitness.
Whakatu HQ owner Lucas Bennett says Mary has been “incredible”.
“Everyone that you tell she’s 70, they say ‘nah’; fifties or 60 at a push. She is very mobile and has picked up on the weights very well.”
Lifting physical and mental weights has become a passion, for herself and to show the way to others.
At her Madhatters Toastmasters club, she recently did a speech exhorting the audience to “bust through your personal glass ceiling”. During it, she flung off her dress and an outer top to reveal her sports wear, with muscled shoulders and arms someone much younger would be proud of.
She hopes to set an example, much as her father had done, and to answer her own question about changing people’s lives for the positive.
“Once you see how somebody could be at my age, your whole world view changes,” she says. “You have to keep going. I see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do 75 press ups at 75. In fact I should be able to do more because I’m now much stronger than I was then.”
Mary’s positive ageing tips
* Change your mindset about retirement, from a time to do nothing, to a chance to do everything.
* Start slow, make small changes to exercise and diet.
* It’s the upward trajectory that counts, no matter how slowly you get there.
* Exercise with friends, you get more motivation and support.
* On those days when you can’t be bothered, focus on one thing, like putting your exercise gear on.
* Focus on one exercise at a time; don’t look too far ahead.
* Be mindful, get in touch with how your body is feeling; don’t block it out with music.
She says the research for her first book showed people in their 80s and 90s doing extraordinary things. “Compared to some of them, I’m just a young chick, I’ve got my whole life in front of me.”
So she signed up for “the hardest thing I could think of” – the punishing strength and conditioning programme of CrossFit-style exercise.
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