Now Is the Time to Get In the Best Shape of Your Life

Dr. Pamela Peeke shares the inspiring story of Betty Lou Sweeney, a great-grandmother who shaped up, and set a world record in the process.

By Dr. Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.P.

"Wherever you are is the best place to start."

You’re 50 or 60 or 70 years old. Sinking into your couch with remote in-hand, you think, “It’s too late to get in shape. I’ve tried. It takes too long to see results. The heck with it.”

It’s true—it takes more time and effort to get fit with every decade of life, especially after 50. But you’re dead wrong if you think it’s too late to achieve remarkable changes in your mental and physical fitness.

Meet Betty Lou

Betty Lou Sweeney never had it easy. An orphan and the product of 12 foster homes, she was always told, “You’re never going to amount to anything.”

Despite those early challenges, she went on to become a nurse and marry a great guy. But the stress and lack of self-esteem played a big role in packing on the pounds. By her late 60s, the Wisconsin native weighed 220 pounds and took 26 different medications for her arthritis, heart, and kidney conditions.

Around that time, she found herself in a near-death drama, connected to a respirator in an ICU and fighting for her life, as an infection threatened to shut down her organs. She survived and took the illness as a major wake-up call, or what I call an EpiphaME. She realized that the pain of staying out of shape far exceeded the pain of the work it would take to get healthy. She left the hospital and never looked back. 

Taking Care of Number One

Without missing a beat, Betty Lou joined the Anytime Fitness gym in her town, and began an extraordinary journey. Her young trainer confessed to me that he gave her no more than two weeks before she dropped out; she’d never worked out before, had multiple medical issues, and was seriously obese. But Betty Lou was determined to do whatever was necessary. She became accountable to her trainer for her exercise and eating, reporting the details of her diet.

Her vision was clear:

  • Get off as many medications as possible.
  • Avoid the doctor except for preventive services.
  • Live a life of greater energy and vitality.

Was it easy? Of course not. Betty Lou kept her mind busy with volunteer and part-time nursing work, created a support system of family and friends who believed in her, and gritted her teeth as she avoided the food, people, places, and things in her life that she’d been addicted to.

"Never, ever underestimate yourself."

By 2010, Betty Lou had shed 120 pounds from her 5’4” body—going from a size 22 to a 4—and was off 25 of her 26 medications. At the same time, her trainer discovered that she had a surprising skill.

One day, he asked Betty Lou to try something different: the plank. Also referred to as an abdominal bridge, the plank is a core exercise that involves holding a push-up position with the body’s weight borne on forearms, elbows, and toes. It’s difficult, since you must maintain a straight back and legs for an extended period of time, without moving. Many athletes can't hold the position for longer than 5 minutes. I’ve done it for 10 minutes, and it’s a bear.  

But Betty Lou hoisted herself up. And, to the amazement of everyone around her, she just stayed there.

Quickly, the fitness experts found that the world record for planks was held by a 68-year-old Australian man, who stayed up for 33 minutes and 40 seconds. “I can beat that!” proclaimed Betty.

And on September 28, 2011—cheered on by her husband, trainer, and club members—Betty Lou entered the Guinness Book of Records by holding her plank position for 36 minutes 58 seconds. Smiling afterward, she told reporters, “Never, ever underestimate yourself.”

A life-long adventure

Today, Betty Lou is 73 years young, a great-grandmother, and a continuing inspiration, touching people’s lives with her story. Her journey has presented challenges, including an injured hamstring. Does she give up? Heck no. She patiently adapts and adjusts, healing however she can.

I had the pleasure of meeting Betty Lou right after her record-breaking event, befriending her and drawing her into my “circle of masters.” They're the folks who have undergone a mind and body transformation, and keep slugging away, despite what life throws their way. Here's what I've learned from Betty.

5 Lessons Learned from Betty Lou’s Journey to Health



Very inspiring story but something just doesn't 'sit right' with me. If she weighed 220 and lost 120 pounds that would mean she now weighs 100 pounds which is considered to be unhealthy for a 5 foot 4 inch frame, especially one that is over 70 years old.

innerpuppie on 2013-01-24 07:14:02

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