Every single morning Ernestine Shepherd wakes up at 2.30am, embarks upon a 10-mile walk and then heads to the gym at 7.30am where she continues to work out and lead exercise classes until 11.30am.
Ernestine is 80 years old.
The Baltimore native was crowned the world’s oldest competitive female bodybuilder in 2011 by the Guinness book of world records. She has washboard abs, impressive biceps and lives on three to four hours sleep ever night.
Spurred into fitness with her sister Velvet at the age of 56, she previously had never done any exercise having been exempt from school physical education lessons as a child because of an injury she sustained in a car accident.
The Independent spoke to a snowed-in Ernie on the east coast of the US on the phone which finally connected after the theme tune from Rocky blared down the line for a minute or so.
“When you call my phone, you hear Sylvester Stallone’s music because I was inspired by his movie… and how he had to get his life back together and how he drank the egg whites and I drink egg whites now because of Rocky,” she explains.
In addition to her exhausting-sounding fitness routine, Ernie eats five to six small meals a day. These often include oatmeal, a handful of walnuts and crushed pineapple for breakfast, a baked white potato, chicken and asparagus as one of her lunches followed by brown rice, turkey and string beans and then sweet potato, tuna and spinach. These meals are also interspersed with 8oz glasses of liquid egg whites. After finishing her meal plans for the day, she tends to turn into bed at 10pm although “sometimes I’m up until 11” leaving just a mere three and a half hours before she wakes up and kick-starts her day all over again.
“I find that is enough sleep for me. I don’t take naps. I’m so happy to do what I do and I thank God for giving me the energy, strength and willpower to do this,” she says.
So what made a 56-year-old high school receptionist, who “loved chocolate cake and all kinds of junk food” enter the arduous world of health, fitness and competitive body-building? Surprisingly, it started with a moment many of us can relate to: Becoming anxious about the prospect of wearing a swimsuit at an upcoming event.
Unhappy with their bodies, Ernie and Velvet decided to head down to the gym to get in shape. Despite noticing an instant transformation, Ernie was not immediately hooked (“The myth was if you did weights as women you would end up looking like a man so I didn’t want to do it”) it was her sister who took to the more competitive side of fitness soon entering competitions and motivational speaking. Despite being put off by this at first, Ernie later joined forces with her sister and the two would work out together in matching workout clothes in different colours.
Velvet later fell ill and suffered a brain aneurysm. Before her death, she made Ernie promise to stick to the two pledges they had made together: To continue to motivate others and land a spot in the Guinness book of world records.
Ernie plunged into depression and experienced panic attacks following her sister’s death but soon turned this into a determination to honour those pledges. In 2010, Ernie was titled the world's oldest female bodybuilder and headed to Rome to receive her medal.
E. Wilma Conner, from Colorado, overtook Ernie as the oldest female bodybuilder a year later but rather than being bitter, Ernie continued to exude her positive outlook on life saying she instead felt good that the lady was “inspired” to start working out as that is why she and Velvet embarked upon their fitness journeys.
Devoutly religious, Ernie says she thanks God every day for her continued healthy life and claims that, while the sheer intensity of her fitness regime may seem tough, she really does enjoy doing it.
“First of all I get up every day and before I go to bed, I pray and thank God for each day he has allowed me to live. Then I thank God for the fact I have remained happy (some days I’m not happy but some way or another I get it together). I have learned to eat healthily. From my depression and panic attacks, I have learned that I need to get out and walk every day to keep myself together. Then being around people and loving them [has helped me].”
She says her "wonderful family", including her husband of sixty years, her son, her Church family and the people she teaches have “kept me going all these years”.
“I’ve had so many things to happen to me and for me. My husband and son back me up 100 per cent. Without them, I don’t know what I would do. Everything I have wanted to do, they have been right there,” she says.
Despite her achievements, she still has something to tick off on her bucket list: meeting her idol, Oprah Winfrey. She has already spoken to the television legend via Skype (which was “really exciting”) but after appearances on CNN, The Harry Connick Jnr Show and Dr Oz, she now wants to meet Winfrey face to face.
“I’m hoping that before my journey or training is done that I will get the opportunity to touch Oprah’s hand and look in her face. She is one amazing lady and I love her.”
Ernie now travels across the US giving motivational speeches and instructing workout classes while continuing to lead her own local classes which includes participants ranging in ages from 20 to 80. She is also gearing up to run more half marathons.
So what can people wanting to head to the gym and get into shape learn from Ernie?
Once you have visited a doctor to check you are healthy, she has advised starting with small steps.
“If your doctor says yes then start with a walking programme because it is very good for you. Don’t try to do 10 miles when you first start, take it slowly. Then go to a gym, start lifting light weights and have someone around who know about fitness who can guide you along safely so you don’t get injured.”
Finally, eat healthily and then drink lots of water – Ernie aims for around eight glasses per day.
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