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Denise Kirtley, 53: Show Up for Yourself Every Day

Four years ago, Denise Kirtley weighed 200 lbs and was prediabetic when she decided to start weightlifting to improve her health. Now a competitive athlete, she discusses the small steps that led to her transformation, how the challenges she faced built her confidence, and how achievable goals can help us reach our dreams.

We are capable of incredible things at any age. At 49, carrying 200 lbs, pre-diabetic and unhappy with where her health was headed, Denise made a move. It was slow steps at first until she got comfortable with how to safely train, but she got a coach and, even though she was unsure that she could change, she stuck with it. Her starting position was loving herself and wanting not just a better life, but a magnificent life. As a vivid, shining example of what we can do in midlife, she jettisoned a career she had put decades into, for a new one helping women who want to transform.

Even now, as a competitive bodybuilder athlete, she will tell anyone that her biggest change is not how she looks, but how she feels about herself. 

How old are you?
53 years young. 

What were you doing earlier in life?
My degree is in finance. I started out as an accountant, which I quickly realized was crushing for me. It was not my life’s purpose, and I switched to executive recruiting. I placed people in careers for 26 years. What I found is that I like to help people. 

When I went through my physical transformation and lost weight and started bodybuilding, I became passionate about this lifestyle. Women started to reach out to me that wanted to achieve the same thing. Just this year, I gave up the recruiting firm I founded 22 years ago and made a total career change. And now I’m coaching women on transforming their bodies in midlife. 

I feel like this is my life’s purpose. We always talk about that thing, like, define your purpose, and I feel like I finally have at 53 years old, which has been a really amazing gift.

How do you feel about yourself now as compared to before?
It is the internal changes. It is not the external. Because when you constantly show up for yourself every day, you’re very intentional about pursuing your health, you have that consistency, you show yourself what you can do. 

More than anything, I have a different mindset. I have a different level of confidence now than I did before. It’s not because of how I look. It is because I have proven to myself what I am capable of, and I have developed habits around this lifestyle that have really allowed me to trust myself. 

“I have proven to myself what I am capable of”

I know whatever life throws me, I have the ability to handle. Because we all get thrown stuff. We all have stuff that happens to us. But now, I have that mindset that I know that I’ll be okay, no matter what happens to me. That is the best part of this journey. I say this all the time. 

It’s like you climb this mountain and, “Okay, I’ve reached this goal and I thought that was it,” and then you see that there’s another mountain in the distance, and now I’m like, “Well, maybe I can climb that one.” Like, you start to believe you can do more. When you start to believe you could do more, you want to do more. Like, I have raised the standards for myself in my life. I never intended to leave the company that I built after 22 years, but it was okay. I was satisfied, but I wasn’t happy. And now I realize: You know what? Happy is not good enough. We deserve amazing in midlife.

I just wanted to shake everything up. I wanted to create this life where everything was wonderful, amazing. Personally, I like to use the word magnificent, because why don’t we deserve that in midlife. I think we do. So that really I show up in the world a different way now. I really do. I have never been more excited about my life. I’ve never felt more excited about the future. I feel that future is full of promise. And this is because of the things that I’ve proven to myself and the mindset that I’ve cultivated over the last three and a half years. That is the gift. It’s cool to look good in your clothes and all that, of course, but the gift is really all this other stuff. 

“Happy is not good enough. We deserve amazing in midlife”

Why did you choose bodybuilding?
To be honest, I was 49. Almost 200 pounds, and I just started observing people who seemed to have gotten into shape, and they had one thing in common, and that was weightlifting. I really was not a weightlifter. Maybe I had dabbled a little in my 20s, but nothing serious. I’d go up to the gym and, without a program, lift some weights or go on the machines. And so it was peak COVID. It was August of 2020, and I was like, I had enough; I had hit my threshold. I tell this story, I really had an a-ha moment. I had gained so much weight that I had to take my wedding rings off. Like, they no longer fit. And that was the morning, I was like, “This has got to stop. This is ridiculous. We have to do something.”

Denise’s “aha” moment, when her wedding ring no longer fit.

I found a coach, although I did not like weightlifting at first. Didn’t fall in love day one. But as I saw how I felt and my body changed, I actually grew to love it. And so, 27 months from the day I started in my guest bedroom with dumbbells in the middle of COVID, 27 months later, I was on the stage competing as a bodybuilder. I had lost 60 pounds at that point. 

“27 months from the day I started in my guest bedroom with dumbbells, I was on the stage competing as a bodybuilder”

Wonderful.
Over that first year of really bodybuilding in a gym, I started to identify as an athlete, which wasn’t really my goal. 

In the beginning, truly, my goal was just to lose weight. Have my wedding rings fit and feel better and have more energy, and to battle perimenopause, which was crushing me at the time. 

What does it mean to you to be an athlete?
I prioritize my life around this practice of fitness. Meaning, I train five days a week. I train with intention. If I have to break it down to one thing, it’s about training with intention. I look to progress in my weightlifting. I use progressive overload in weightlifting. And I eat properly to fuel my workouts, which means I eat carbs. I’m not a low-carb person. I actually eat quite a lot of carbs, but I do prioritize protein. And as we age, I do think that is absolutely critical to prevent osteopenia and all of the things. But really my nutrition and my schedule revolves around this practice that has become very important to me. 

I think some people on the outside might say, “Oh, that’s a vanity thing.” It’s really not about vanity. It’s about aging strong. I want to be like Joan MacDonald, right? Like, 77 and able to do all the things and live a full life. This is, to me, the pathway to living our fullest lives as we age. 

“It’s really not about vanity. It’s about aging strong”

No argument here.
It’s like changing this narrative. We’ve been taught so long about, like, “You get to middle age and it’s decline. Decline is inevitable. It’s just all decline from here.” That is such garbage. It’s just a lie. It doesn’t have to be that way, but you have to be intentional. 

How is your general health?
So, I get my blood work done twice a year, and certainly hormones are part of that. I’m 53 and I’m perimenopausal. You have to work with your doctors on making sure these metrics look good. When I started this, when I was overweight, I was prediabetic. I am no longer prediabetic. I have arthritis and I still have arthritis. That doesn’t go away. But in the beginning, for example, I have 50 stairs to my front door. I had to rest like halfway up my stairs every day because my joints, my knees would hurt so badly. 

Simply by losing this weight and getting into more of a healthy state, I don’t experience that joint pain anymore. Now, are my hormones totally balanced? No. I’m 53. I’m going through hormonal changes, but I have been able to really manage my side effects of my hormones being out of balance just through diet and exercise. I don’t experience many of the things that a lot of women do, luckily, and I attribute that to this lifestyle. 

“I make sure the biggest thing about my meals is the protein consumption”

How many times a day do you eat?
I eat five times a day. I’m a two-breakfast person. Usually, that’s my pre- and post-workout, it’s breakfast one and breakfast two. Then I have two savory meals and then one meal at night that’s a little lighter. I make sure the biggest thing about my meals is the protein consumption. I aim to get about 30 grams of protein in every meal, which is a good general guideline for most people, regardless of height, about 120 to 150 grams for an average person. It takes intention, but once you get used to it and in the groove, it becomes very easy. 

What I find by eating five meals a day, it keeps my energy really steady throughout the day. It does keep everything balanced. I’m making sure that my blood sugar stays balanced by making sure I pair my carbs with some fats and some proteins, and I just find that it really keeps me that steady level of energy we’re all looking for. 

I was one of those people, when I was heavy before I started this, I took a nap almost every day after lunch. My body would get so tired. I think I was a carb queen. I would experience that crash. This happens to a lot of people. But these five meals really helped me. I don’t experience that anymore. It’s really helped me avoid that. 

Strength Training

What is it that women in particular don’t understand about strength training?
The first thing that comes up is fear. They feel like they’re going to hurt themselves. They think that if they lift heavy, they’re going to get bulky. There’s this resistance to really lifting enough weight to make a change in your body. You start small. I would say, like, you’re building the house, you’re building the foundation, with my clients. And then from there, we build. We start with dumbbells and machines. And then from there, we slowly work our way up and we get heavier weight. You start to feel more comfortable. You learn technique. The more technique you learn, you learn how to protect your body from injury. Like, how to brace and engage your core and get that tightness. And then after a long-ways down the road, we’ll get to barbell work. But that’s not day one. 

But I do think it’s very important that women understand that to change your body and to build lean muscle, you have to lift a decent amount of weight. You know, the five-pound dumbbells aren’t going to build the body that you want. When you see those women’s bodies and you’re like, “That’s the body I want; they look lean and fit”, those women are lifting heavy weights. And so, if anything, I would encourage women not to be afraid to do that. It is just not going to happen. Sorry. Have you ever heard that saying that, you don’t want to lift weights because you don’t want to get bulky? That is like saying you don’t want to start swimming because you don’t want to become Michael Phelps. It’s not going to happen. 

How are you planning your weeks? For a lot of people, the scheduling of a fitness and health program is a hurdle.
I agree. And I get that all the time. I think especially a lot of women, if you’re a mom and you have a job and then it’s like, “How do I do this?” People think my whole life is being in the gym. It is not. 75 minutes, five days a week. It’s not crazy, but you have to plan for it and be, again, intentional or else it won’t happen. 

Fitness Schedule

This is my schedule: 

Meal prep on Sundays and Wednesdays

Grocery Shopping on Sundays

Cardio 4x per week. I like to do mine in the evenings.

Currently, I train 4x per week in the gym (this block is unusual; I normally have 5 days of training).

I schedule my evening walks with my dogs.

Check-in’s with my coach on Friday mornings, which involves sending progress photos, measurements, scale weights and biometrics.

I plan all my things on my calendar to block out the time to insure that it gets done.  Otherwise, I’m building a business and managing my own clients’ journeys. If I didn’t plan around my (very full-time) job, prioritizing my health and fitness would be impossible.

I blocked out the details of a few work calls already on my calendar for next week…my calendar will be full soon with client calls, as well.

Example week: 

“I believe that our goals can get us to our dreams”

Now that we are in 2024, what are your goals?
Goals are important. I talk a lot about how we have to have goals for the new year. We have to have things we’re excited about. I think a lot of women in midlife, and men too, I’m sure, we just stop having goals and dreams. Personally, I categorize them very differently. I have goals which are what I’m looking to accomplish next year. And then I have dreams, which are visions, like these large visions that are really exciting, maybe not as achievable. 

Goals, to me, are those achievable things that if I work hard and I aspire to, I can make happen next year. And so I come up with a list of goals and then on a weekly basis, you have to pursue them. It’s not like you just write them down and magic is going to happen and you walk into your goals. So then I come up with smaller weekly or monthly tasks that I can do to move me towards that goal. 

I also like to come up with the dreams which could be, like, over in the next 10 years — wouldn’t this be cool if this amazing thing happened. Like, the really amazing, big, huge stuff for your life, you’re like, “Wouldn’t this be incredible?” I don’t know if it’s going to happen. I believe that our goals can get us to our dreams, because the more that you achieve your goals, you grow. You grow. And just like I said, you climb one mountain, you can see that the next mountain might be achievable. That’s how we get to our dreams. So I really like to break it down between those two. 

I encourage people to have big dreams. We should still be able to dream. I want to have stuff happen when I’m 70 years, 75 years, 80 years that I’m excited about. I think that there’s no expiration date on those things. So I do both. 

What are the three non-negotiables in your life?
1. My lifestyle. I have lifting weights, nutrition. Putting my health first. That is my non-negotiable. 

2. Not settling. I think I settled a lot, for a lot of my life. Like, things were okay. I don’t want okay anymore. Life is short. I want magnificent, not settling. 

3. Being present with the people I care about, surrounding myself with people that inspire me and I inspire, and to really be present, and really cultivate those relationships. It really is all about that. At the end of the day, it’s about the people in our lives. 

Connect with Denise:
Instagram
Rebellion Body

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

10 COMMENTS

  1. So impressed! At 61 have taken the path to health and longevity. Eating Whole Foods and moving towards more plant based. Exercise, sleep, creative fun, and my business (current therapist moving to ADHD life coaching) keeps me active engaged and my mind stimulated!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this article, thank you for sharing a bit about Denise’s transformation. I have followed her for a while on Instagram and highly recommend her posts for those interested. She shares lots of great training tips, in addition to being an inspiration for us all.

  3. That is so wonderful and Rewarding I would love to do the challenge I work out all the time and I still don’t get what I want my abs I want them stronger and I treadmill every dayI get on a stepper every day the bench to live not a lot the total gym to do my squats and the rower to do everything thank you I am 70 years old this year

  4. I really can appreciate her desire to change her life. She looks great.

    I am doing the same thing at 61. Nutrition and fitness are important to me.

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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