Health crises set two women on the fitness trail – and they've never looked back

by Donna Chisholm / 16 September, 2018
Exercise physiologist Megan Reyden coaches Dee Hockings, whose systolic blood pressure spiked to more than 200. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Exercise physiologist Megan Reyden coaches Dee Hockings, whose systolic blood pressure spiked to more than 200. Photo/Adrian Malloch

RelatedArticlesModule - Health crises two women

Dee Hockings and Maggie Hunt are revelling in the change brought by their new fitness regimes.

It’s the blood nose that wouldn’t stop that sticks in Dee Hockings’ mind. She was just about to sit down for dinner when the bleeding started and it didn’t stop until she was in hospital. Although she was already on anti-hypertension medication, her systolic blood pressure had spiked to over 200 – if her nose hadn’t bled, they told her, she would have had a stroke.

At 69, it was the warning sign that started her re-examination of her physical fitness. Her weight had crept up relentlessly in the sedentary decade or so that she’d stopped the squash and basketball she used to play. She’d given up getting on the scales, her clothes didn’t fit any more, she got puffed climbing the stairs, and when she got down on the floor to change the grandkids’ nappies, she couldn’t get up again. The extent of her daily exercise regime was walking her dog for 2km around the local park. It was better than nothing, but “it was very low-intensity – my legs were moving but I was just wandering, really. I’m not dumb – I knew it wasn’t enough – but I was just lazy.”

Five years later and 8kg lighter, Hockings is a fitness junkie, not only for weight loss but for the impact that resistance training has had on her health and strength. Three days a week, she works out for an hour, with about half that time spent on weights and strength training, in a regime tailored for her by exercise physiologists Catherine Moss and Megan Reyden, who’ve steadily upped the intensity of her sessions. Her blood pressure – which once hovered around 150/90 even with medication – has now dropped to about 118/74 and her medication has been halved.

The former Telecom senior manager says she hadn’t recognised the importance of resistance training in the fitness picture. “To me, losing weight was the be-all and end-all. I had absolutely no idea of the benefits of resistance training and I’m gobsmacked by the difference it’s made to my shape. It’s ridiculous you can get to 70 and have no idea what it can do for you. I haven’t lost a lot of weight, but boy am I smaller where I want to be. I’ve never changed shape before when I’ve gone on a diet and just been walking. I’m not blobby any more. I’ve got muscle.”

Heart-attack survivor Maggie Hunt  with exercise expert Catherine Moss. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Heart-attack survivor Maggie Hunt with exercise expert Catherine Moss. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Hockings says she now walks rather than drives to the supermarket when she needs only a few items, bounds up the stairs at home, and lifts her grandchildren with ease. “It’s about well-being. My life has gone from one blood nose to another and worrying about my blood pressure to where I don’t worry any more about it. That’s huge.”

Training alongside her at the early-morning sessions at the Optimize Health clinic in Auckland is 66-year-old Maggie Hunt, who’s in heart failure after a massive heart attack in 2012 and has had a defibrillator implanted. She was a non-smoker and regular gym-goer before her attack, and didn’t have blood pressure or cholesterol problems. She says the fact that her programme has been individualised by exercise experts has improved her focus and fitness and given her confidence that she’ll be safe.

“Having a heart attack knocked my confidence. Part of my heart is dead and it won’t ever come back. When I started, I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do – was it safe or wasn’t it?” Her heart rate, blood pressure and weight are checked before every session, where she’s now completing 100kg leg presses and pushing two 10kg barbells from a flat bench. “We work her core hard because that’s the powerhouse of the body and we want to keep it nice and strong,” says Moss.

Photo/Adrian Malloch

Photo/Adrian Malloch

Hunt is now capable of more than she was before the attack, and her blood pressure has fallen. When it reached a consistently low 92/60 a few months ago, her doctor halved her hypertension medication. A tour manager, she says the only thing she knew about resistance training before was that it could help osteoporosis, but she’s now fitter than many people younger than her. “You have to be responsible for your own health. I know I’m getting stronger and I feel as if I’m doing something to help myself live a really good life.”

Reyden says some people tend to have a “cookie-cutter” attitude to fitness options. “Yes, walking is the easiest thing but there are many benefits of an individualised prescription and resistance training in conjunction with aerobic exercise.”

Moss says Hockings’ and Hunt’s fitness is now in the top 10% for their age. She says many women worry they’re going to bulk up too much if they focus on strength training. “We have to educate them and say, ‘You aren’t going to get massive – it’s about improving the quality of the muscles.’”

This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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