L.A.-based Jenny Heitz, 46, is an extreme exercise junkie. She doesn’t work out to look buff, although she is. She does it because she’s always loved movement and believes there’s no reason a woman shouldn’t take up a new sport — in her case, circus acrobatics — just because she’s over forty. Jenny created her web site, Fem40Fitness, as an extreme fitness resource for midlife women who refuse to go gently into that good night.
Who should read your site? What prompted you to create it?
Although I specifically target women over 40 who are already involved in some sort of “extreme” exercise, I think many women would find the site informative. I try to vary the posts between more educational subjects like getting enough Vitamin D and using exercise to avoid some of the pitfalls of aging like arthritis, to chatty profiles written by women who do everything from ultra running to pole dancing. My goal was to try and bring female athletes who are “middle-aged” together, since many of these pursuits are niche sports with their own tiny communities. In the end, the focus, goals, obsession, and dedication are the same, regardless of the sport you love.
What are some of the cultural messages about women, fitness, and aging that you’re challenging?
Just as there are some erroneous assumptions made about women and sexuality over a certain age, there are plenty made about very fit women over forty. It’s one thing if you’re a competitive professional athlete; then it’s your job. But if you’re a middle-aged woman who happens to adore athleticism, and engage in it constantly (as I do), you might find that you’re alternately accused of vanity or some sort of unhealthy exercise addiction. You kind of get screwed both ways, really! And while I’ve noticed that men will comment, the women engage in it as well, especially if they don’t exercise. It’s as if my habits are some sort of reproach, when really they have nothing to do with anyone else.
In reality, enjoying exercise has very little to do with how you look. If you end up with a tight, sexy little bod because of the exercise, it seems like a happy side effect, but it’s not the goal. I don’t care how much I exercise, I’m never going to look like a 20-year-old. On the other hand, I’m in better shape than most 20-year-olds; I’m certainly in better shape now than when I was 20. Hell, Madonna is in better shape than when she was 20, but now she gets flak about her “ropey” arms, as if there’s anything unseemly about having super-toned, muscular arms in your 50s. Anyone who says vanity is the reason women over a certain age work out is gravely mistaken, because we really don’t get any positive feedback.
You started Cirque School when you were 41. What got you interested in that sport? What has it done for you physically and psychologically? Was anyone worried that you were “too old” to embark on such an extreme sport?
I was a Pilates instructor for about four years before I found CSLA, and I’d done it at a very high level, more acrobatic type exercises, and once I realized I could just flip around on a trapeze instead, I was hooked. Trapeze, and circus arts generally, are like being back on a playground for me. There’s something very freeing about being able to hang upside down and swing and balance just like you did as a child.
Physically, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, mostly because you’re dealing with moves that require a great deal of strength, but also because you have the extra special factor of fear. You know: fear that you’ll fall or just make an ass out of yourself. Which, by the way, does happen. Falling as an adult, and getting back up immediately, is good practice. I see many women being very, very careful with themselves, and I think that’s a mistake because we are not hot house flowers, we are capable human beings.
I see trapeze as moving meditation. I literally cannot think of anything but exactly what I’m doing when I’m on that trap. Every problem, every petty tyranny, just melts away while I’m there. Trapeze got me through my father’s terrible death from cancer. It gave me space to clear my mind of everything, and just be in my body. Life becomes pretty simple up there!
CSLA has students ranging from 14 to over 60, so I’m not the oldest person there by any means. I’ve had some injuries along the way, but they weren’t age-related injuries, and no one has ever suggested I’m too old for the circus. I even perform in the CSLA student showcases and recitals, and that’s always an adventure.
Hypothetical: I want to get in shape but I’ve never been athletic, I’m carrying extra weight, I’m 50, and my knees are shot. What kind of exercise should I do, why, and how often?
I’m not a personal trainer, but I am a Pilates instructor, so I guess I can give my two cents. I would suggest starting out with something low-impact like Pilates, probably one on one on the apparatus if you can afford it. I might also recommend just walking at first, perhaps avoiding hills if your knees couldn’t take it. I’m a big fan of spinning for cardio and weight loss, since it’s a very efficient calorie burner, but I’d also be cautious about adding too much resistance on the bike at first, again because of the knee problems.
Mostly, though, I suggest finding something you like. Face it: if you don’t care for it, you’re never going to stick with it. Exercise should just be a part of your life, not a prescription to follow for certain health benefits. So, if you like yoga, do it. If swimming feels good, do that. Maybe being on a women’s softball team sounds fun. The best type of exercise delivers more intangible benefits than a tight butt. You might find a whole new community and group of friends, like I did.
There’s a theory that athletes are better in bed than non-athletes. What’s your response to this? True? Or propaganda espoused by athletes?
I’ve always thought that being sexy and good in bed had everything to do with confidence and generosity. Feeling physically good in your own skin goes a long way toward feeling confident in the bedroom. I guess that the literal physical benefits of being in shape, like low body weight, good cardio endurance, and strength would all stand one in good stead, but I think that theory probably applies more to men than women since men are the ones liable to have performance problems as they age.
As far as endurance goes, I’m sure that being in excellent shape plays a big role. But there’s so much more to being good in bed than that. Lance Armstrong, I’m sure, was fantastic in the sack, but that doesn’t make him any less of a duplicitous douchebag.
Which older female athletes inspire you and why?
I know a couple of over-40 serial performers who are pretty incredible. They still work constantly as well as teach, and their expertise is very inspiring to me. There’s a former CSLA student, a year older than I, who is a multiple Ironman competitor, plus she bikes and does hand balancing, partner balancing, and serial straps at a pretty advanced level. She’s just wondrous to me, although I’m sure that incredible genetics play a big role in making her such an elite athlete. These women have such physical ease and confidence, and it just spills over in a positive way.
Anything else you want people to know about Fem40Fitness that I haven’t asked?
If you’re over 40 and love to exercise at a high level, you aren’t crazy. Society has a very narrow range of acceptable behaviors for women over 40, and it’s up to you to say, screw you, I’m going to do what pleases me. I think of Fem40Fitness as a resource for women who do what they love and ignore the rule makers. Come and read, visit and comment, because women who love extreme fitness need to stick together.