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Faith to Fitness: What Ernestine Shepherd—The World’s Oldest Competitive Body Builder—Can Teach Us All About Aging

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D.T. Carson

         At 86, Ernestine Shepherd is in better shape than most half her age and for anyone who meets or sees her and does the typical double take upon hearing her age, she is a walking, breathing example of how staying fit can also be age-defying.

“When people see me at class, the first thing they ask is how old I am,” Shepherd says. Then someone will tell them, and they say, no, she can’t be 85. Maybe about 60. Just yesterday, a woman who came to my class asked one of the other ladies how old that I was. When the woman told her, she said, tell her to show me some proof, because I don’t believe it.”

But it’s what happens next that both tickles and inspires Shepherd the most: both men and women alike rethink how much more they should be doing to get and stay fit.

“I just didn’t know it was possible for a woman over 60 to have a six pack and at 80—unbelievable,” is another standard observation.

Ironically, Shepherd was dubbed “6-pack Granny” by Ripley’s Believe It or Not and in 2010 at the age of 71, she was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest competitive bodybuilder in the world.

Her celebrity has landed her in everything from a cameo appearance in Beyonce’s “Black Is King” and an original documentary short from Prevention to a guest spot on CNN with Anderson Cooper. But the woman who starts every day off with prayer and lives by a “three -D” mantra of “determined, dedicated, disciplined to be fit” (also the title of her book), believes that she is better defined by her journey than her six-pack, and freely shares it during a robust schedule of speaking engagements and public appearances across the nation where she inspires women that at almost any age, they too, can be fit—and fabulous.

For Shepherd, affectionately dubbed as “Miss Ernie”, getting fit was a small part health and large part ego fueled by the love of a sister for whom getting and staying fit was a top priority.

Shepherd—who had done some modeling in the past—and her sister, Velvet, had been invited to go to a church picnic where they were supposed to wear bathing suits, but they hated what they saw as they tried on swimsuit after swimsuit in a local clothing store.

“I was 56 and she was 57, and neither of us liked the way we looked in the bathing suits we tried on and decided that we would start exercising,” recalls Shepherd, who described herself at the time as a sedentary, well-padded school secretary and “slug” who had never worked out a day in her life.

“We found an aerobics class,” she continued. “Now, I didn’t know anything about aerobics because at the age of 12, I’d broken my ankle and was told I wouldn’t ever be able to do any exercise on it. But my sister said it that’s been a many a day ago, so we’re going to take this class.

“Well, I wasn’t working as hard as my sister was because I was still afraid of my ankle, and because I was prissy. I didn’t want to break my nails or mess up my hair. But when I saw the changes in my sister’s body, I had the audacity to get angry.”

She also got serious and before long began to see a change in her own body.

“After we had taken aerobics for a while, the instructor said, ‘I want you ladies to lift weights because it will really make a change in your body’,” Shepherd picked up the story. “Again, I didn’t want to do it, but I followed my sister Velvet. I started lifting weights and began to notice the definition in my body.”

Just as the two began to weigh the possibilities of going even further, her sister Velvet—who had by then set her sights on becoming a bodybuilder— suffered a brain aneurysm and would subsequently pass away, but not before making Shepherd promise that if something were to happen to her, that she would continue what they’d started together.

“What we want to do,” she told Ernestine “is to motivate other seniors to the importance of exercising. To let them know they can get fit. That age is nothing but a number. And we want to teach them to live a healthy, happy, positive, confident lifestyle.”

However, instead of moving forward, Ernestine fell to pieces following the death of her beloved sister.

“I didn’t want to do anything because I couldn’t understand why God took her away. I just couldn’t get over it,” Shepherd explained.

Then one night her sister came to her in a dream.

“She said, ‘Teenie, you aren’t doing what I asked you to do. Get up and do what I asked you to do.’ I sat up in the bed and looked around. I didn’t see anyone, but I know that’s what she said to me.

“I got myself together, went to a gym and at this gym, I met a trainer named Raymond Day and asked if he help me with my workout, and he did.”

The results were so transformative that Day submitted the then 60-plus year old’s picture to Essence Magazine for an issue featuring women over 50. So impressed were magazine editors that they flew her to New York City for a photo shoot that was included in the magazine.

A call from “The View” followed and she was back in New York to take the show and demonstrate her exercises. And the calls kept coming. Oprah Winfrey. The 700 Club. AARP.

Following the dream of her sister, she accompanied her trainer to a body building contest where she met former Mr. Universe, Yohnnie Shambourger.

“I asked Yohnnie would he train me, and he said, yes, but it will be a long journey and you’ll have to promise to do everything I tell you,” she recalled. Of course, when I started training with him, I told him, I do not want to look like a man. I want to remain looking feminine and he said, ‘You don’t have to concern yourself about that because you don’t have that testosterone and I know how to train you.”

Over the next months, she meticulously followed the workout program he’d designed for her, sending him a picture every month to let him see how her body was changing before he would finally invite her to Fort Washington to train directly with him.

“Sometimes the workouts were so difficult that I would say, I’m old and I can’t do this,” Shepherd said. “Then he’d say, ‘No, you are not old, you are an athlete.”

A year would pass before he said she was ready to do her first show where she would be judged not only on her physique but her athletic abilities, including strength and flexibility. And at 71, she would have to purchase a posing suit, similar to a 2-piece string bikini.

“My husband was very religious, and I hadn’t told him I was going to have on this skimpy suit,” Shepherd chuckles. “So, when the music started playing, I peeked from behind the curtain and there he was sitting with his hands folded and I said, ‘Oh Lord, I can’t go out there in this suit because he’ll have a fit.’ But Yohnnie said, ‘It’s now or never.’ So, I walked out on that stage and did all of my poses. Then I got carried away. I did pushups. I did dips…

“I was the oldest one in the contest and when the time came for the winners, well Lord here I came out in first place. I couldn’t believe it and my husband was very proud.”

In addition to first place in her class at the Natural East Coast Tournament of Champions Bodybuilding Competition, Shambourger and Shepherd’s collective efforts paid off with a call from the from Guinness Book of World Records in 2010 inviting her to Rome, and subsequently documenting her as the oldest living, competitive body builder in the world. A call from Ripley’s Believe it or Not followed as did TV shows like Good Morning America. Neither did her accomplishments go unnoticed by the likes of United Healthcare and AARP with whom she has continued to partner with on events and speaking engagements to inspire other seniors.

Five years would pass before Shepherd retired from competition at 76 and became a personal trainer, utilizing all she’d learned from her own journey. But she was hardly done. Once off the competition cycle, the woman who could at her peak bench press 150 pounds, started walking and then eventually running—and winning— marathons in her age category.

At her peak, she was running up to 80 miles a week. However, in 2019, everything came to a screeching halt with the death of her husband of 60 years.

“Everything went to pieces. I ended up with anxiety and depression,” Shepherd said. “My husband had worked hard with me. For everything that I wanted to do, he was in my corner. He would prepare five days-worth of food for me, so that all I would have to do, is place it in the microwave and heat it up.”

Getting back on track took both time and medication. When she did return to the gym, she found that her nerves didn’t bother her. However, a side effect of the medication was a slight weight gain.

“I still look nice, but I’m not as small as I was,” says the 5’4” dynamo, whose average weight had been 125. “Now I’m up to 135. I still wear my same clothes. They fit, but there’s some spots I really need to work on because I know how it’s supposed to look [though] nobody notices but me.”

Though her bodybuilding days are behind her, Shepherd’s daily schedule would give the average adult of any age pause.

She begins every day with every morning prayer and devotional messages on Instagram, stating, “I cannot do anything without prayer.” She is at the gym by six for a personal workout. From 7-9am, she walks and jogs with Ernie’s Foot Patrollers. At nine, she teaches a “Sweat and Sculpt” Class for women, averaging in age from 50-84. She takes a break mid-day and returns to teach an afternoon class or do some personal training. Once a month there is her community walking group, and the schedule is frequently modified for out-of-town engagements at churches or with groups like the AARP and Prevention.

She follows her three D’s “determined, dedicated, disciplined to being fit” religiously—a discipline that has come to include a diet of egg whites, chicken, tuna, sweet and white potatoes, vegetables, brown rice, plenty of water and no preservatives.

While fully understanding that for most women, changing their diet is the biggest challenge, what she wants aging women to understand the most, however, is how important activity is.

“I want them to understand that if you just sit around and don’t move and do nothing, the more your body will deteriorate. The ladies that I train are keeping their body in good condition and look nice in their clothes. Then when they come to class, I’ll wear lipstick and fancy exercise clothes, and they come in and do the same.

Most of all, Shepherd stays true to the promise she made to her sister.

“With what time I have left, I want to spend it helping as many people as I can to live this healthy lifestyle. I go all the churches and speak and wherever I go, it makes me so very proud that I can inspire them to work out and get healthy.

“Exercise has such a positive on people’s mental attitudes. The endorphins and health benefits you get from exercising… When I go out and walk or lift weights, it really does something for me. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t out exercising and helping people because that’s my real joy.”

WHAT SHEPHERD HAS DONE TO GET AND STAY FIT

  • Realizing early on the importance of good nutrition (including sufficient protein and supplements) she sought out the services of a nutritionist
  • Keeps refrigerator stocked with her seven convenient small balanced daily meals
  • Makes sure she gets the rest her body needs
  • Drinks plenty of water
  • Tries to have a positive attitude about everything, views her workouts as fun and sees her work as being on a “long happy journey”
  • Knows where she wants to go and what she wants to accomplish
  • Never gives up
  • Believes in encouragement, inspiration and family support and lives by her mantra” Determined — Dedicated — Disciplined to Be Fit”
  • Began slowly under the guidance of an expert personal trainer to gradually condition the body

Note: “It’s very important,” says Shepherd, “because you don’t want them to get hurt. I’m a good trainer for older women because I know just what they would be capable of doing. I wouldn’t dare have an older woman come to my class for the first time and give her a 20 pound weight because she wouldn’t have the energy to do it, if she’s never lifted weights. “


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