“I think I can. I think I can. I think I can …”
This iconic line from the storytime favorite, “The Little Engine That Could,”has been an inspirational call for children around the world. But as we all know, life’s challenges don’t stop with age.
Diagnosed with asthma, COPD, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, osteoarthritis, and two collapsing heart valves by the age of 60, Nancy Burnham knew she had two options: to follow in her parent’s footsteps and tie herself to medications and doctor appointments for the rest of her life, or to take control of her health. She chose the latter. “I can do this” became her motto.
One year later after her diagnosis, the Georgia native would rid herself of her chronic pain, eventually complete a 200-pound deadlift, and open her own Pilates studio. Here’s her story.
Not knowing anything about exercise didn’t matter to Nancy. “This is my responsibility and I’m going to take control of my health. This is my job,” she thought to herself.
So a year after her retirement, Nancy took her first step into a gym — at age 61. She signed up at a local gym near her house. But during her tour of the facilities, she realized she didn’t know how to start training. Recruiting some help, Nancy worked with a personal trainer, Dr. Robert Pruni, nicknamed “Doc.”
On her first day with Doc, Nancy found herself “scared to death.” It wasn’t what she had envisioned for her retirement. But they met Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for personal training. She also adjusted her diet and cross-trained.
“It was a long road,” said Doc. “She would get frustrated and we would just continue to move forward. Train a little bit harder, and if she was hurting, we would back it off and then move forward.”
Amongst the challenges, one day in particular day remains clear for Nancy. She was doing side planks and Doc challenged her to the next level. Pushing two benches together, he broke down the move. First, put your hands on one bench. Second, engage your core. Third, put one leg on the other bench. Fourth, bring the knee in and then straighten it back out. “I’m going to do what?” she said.
Nancy even spotted a couple guys across the gym stop lifting to see if she would do it.
“Slowly but surely,” Nancy completed the exercise.
“He always pushed me: ‘You can do this. You can do this,’” said Nancy. “And I would begin to mutter to myself, ‘Errrr this is tough, but I can do this. Just say it to yourself until you believe it. I can do this. I can. do. this.’”
Not every challenge came in the form a new workout. Diagnosed with depression, Nancy said during her first year there were days she’d find herself wanting to cry all day. Still, she showed up to train and for Doc, and that was a win. Even if that day’s workout wasn’t a lot, Doc said it helped establish a habit to keep training, to keep going.
And Nancy agrees. “If it was a short workout, that’s OK. You can always go back and sit on the stationary bike and pedal. Keep moving,” she said. “When you stop moving, you put a period at the end of that sentence of life.”
At the end of her first year of training, she went off all five of her medications, rid herself of her chronic pain, and lost 30 pounds — and 25 1/2 inches. The only medication she takes now? A compounded hormone to regulate her levels.
For Nancy, there was never a reason not to exercise. Even in rehab, after tearing a ligament in her ankle while on the Bosu ball, she learned yoga, hobbling in a boot and all.
And again, she told herself: “You can do this.”
Nancy’s next injury came from competing in a Warrior Dash at age 65. Breaking her right ankle during the race, she still finished it to complete the 5K, 12 obstacles, and of course, leaping through fire. For her, she said the Warrior Dash taught another one of life’s lessons: “It doesn’t matter if you’re afraid or if you’re scared. That’s normal. But you have to believe in yourself, no matter what your circumstances. You can do what you believe you can do, no matter how small or large it is.”
Believing in her goals didn’t stop at the gym’s door. In between raising two children, working a full-time job, and taking care of her parents, Nancy attended college. In 1982, she started junior college at the age of 35 and received her associate’s degree. After taking some time off to care for her family, Nancy went back to school at Georgia State University to get her bachelor of science degree in public administration. She graduated cum laude when she was 50 years old.
So when it came to the next goal in her training, all she had to remember was everything she already had done in life.
“You can do this.”
Doc remembers that it came as a surprise to him one day out of the blue: “She said what would you think if I told you I would like to do this?” Doc remembers Nancy asking. “I said, ‘Do what?’ She said, ‘Become a trainer.’”
Nancy said she wanted to become a personal trainer to help older adults like herself. Remembering that no one told her how to exercise when she got older, Nancy wanted to be a resource for others.
In 2012, she became a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise. By 2013, her and Doc had opened their own gym together, CrossFit Lilburn 678, in Lilburn, Georgia.
Nancy had already tried out CrossFit at the recommendation of Doc and liked its functional training. It was this kind of training that helped her complete the Warrior Dash. She was motivated to help train older adults and teach functional training, and opening the gym seemed like a good next step.
“Really, she went from one end of the spectrum to another — where she could barely move years ago and now she has more certifications than anybody I know,” said Doc.
One thing about CrossFit culture that Nancy noted was sense of competition. How much can you lift, you might regularly overhear at a CrossFit gym.
And while Nancy doesn’t perform her best based on others, a friend and fellow trainer tested her one day to find out that answer.
In 2014 at the age of 67,she deadlifted 200 pounds!
“For me, I think personally, and this is gonna sound sexist, it makes a man realize I am not a 90-pound weakling woman,” said Nancy. “There are plenty of women who are bodybuilders. I’m not a bodybuilder. I am a personal trainer. Yes, I can lift.”
And while that lift put her equal to her peers, it wasn’t about the weight, it was about doing her best. And for her, whether it was 200 or 600 pounds made no difference. She doesn’t feel the need to keep reaching a higher and higher number. Currently, she can overhead lift 65 to 70 pounds and trains to keep her body in healthy shape.
“So what do I do with that knowledge of how much I can lift?” said Nancy. “I try to use it to teach them [my clients]. If this crazy, old lady can do that in the condition I was in, you can do this too.”
Over the course of a year and a half, Nancy taught her clients CrossFit. She found that a lot of them preferred a more private, quieter environment to that of the gym, so she started training out of her home. Eventually, the demand shifted, and she left the CrossFit gym to train from home full time.
There she opened her own Pilates studio, Simple Fitness, LLC, in 2016. She had already learned Pilates after having knee surgery and needing a way to stay active. Paving the way for her studio, she became a certified Pilates instructor in 2014 with Power Pilates.
Nancy didn’t stop when she freed herself of her chronic pain, but instead she kept going, helping others to live pain-free and understand that anything is possible.
Now at age 69, she says: “One of my rules is we don’t say, ‘I can’t do that.’ [You] might not be able to do this right now, but you will later. That’s an opening at the end of that sentence for possibilities.”
To learn more about Nancy’s story, read “My War on Aging,” available on Amazon in early April 2017.