Body Building Duo Racks Up the Gold
She is a concert pianist from Baltimore, a former ballerina, and a doctor's wife who had never lifted weights and never even set foot in a gym until age fifty-two. He is a Belfast-born soccer player turned Hollywood stuntman, a double for teen idol Frankie Avalon in those classic 1960s surf movies who became personal trainer to the stars at the Beverly Hills Health Club.
For the past decade, 74-year-old Bill Cunningham and 64-year-old Jane Hesselgesser have pumped iron together and, for the past several years, competed together in bodybuilding contests around the world. The Southern California duo has won more than two hundred weight-lifting awards, including a gold medal at the Natural Olympia competition in Greece. Hesselgesser won a second gold medal in Greece in the division for women ages sixty to sixty-nine.
In competition, the pair's sculpted and deeply bronzed bodies move in unison through a series of choreographed poses that flow with Natalie Cole's song "I Wish You Love." Cunningham brings decades of fitness training to the routine. Hesselgesser injects an exuberant energy and effortless grace from her years as a dancer and musician.
"It's more than just showing a muscle. It's the passion....It's something that is beautiful," says Cunningham.
"We look at it as art," says Hesselgesser.
When they're not competing together, Cunningham and Hesselgesser team up as business partners, working as personal trainers in the San Fernando Valley's Westlake Village. They see resistance training as an ideal activity for people over fifty, whom they encourage to start slow and gradually build up endurance and strength. Their clients are for the most part after fitness, not serious bodybuilding, and range from twenty-somethings to a woman training to run the Los Angeles Marathon for her eighty-fifth birthday.
"Bodybuilding is the number one sport that you can say prevents disease," says Cunningham, touting the benefits of weight training in boosting the immune system, warding off osteoporosis, and keeping ligaments and tendons flexible.
Hesselgesser had never lifted weights until her husband started working out with Cunningham. One day she decided to tag along to watch her husband's exercise session, and she was impressed with the trainer's fitness program.
Wearing flip-flops and unsure of how to use the gym's machines, Hesselgesser soon found herself working her way through the maze of weight-training devices, with Cunningham as a genial and encouraging mentor. By the end of her first workout, Hesselgesser was hooked. And Cunningham invited her back--making just one request in his lilting Irish accent: "Do you think you could get yourself a pair of gym shoes, love?"
Hesselgesser still laughs when she talks about how she "flip-flopped" her way into a hobby and later a life-changing career as she gradually cut back her music sessions and spent more and more time at the gym.
She and Cunningham follow a strict exercise regime to maintain their fitness and form for competitions. On Mondays and Thursdays, their intensive workouts focus on chests, backs, and arms; on Tuesdays and Fridays, it's all about working the shoulders, triceps, legs, and abdominal areas. When Hesselgesser is getting ready for a competition, she moves outdoors to lunge uphill while carrying dumbbells and takes off for stretches walking backward.
Diet is key to Cunningham's regime. Breakfast is oatmeal with flax seed oil, flax meal, fresh strawberries, a protein drink, and a rice drink rather than cow's milk. He sips a protein drink for a midmorning snack and takes a complement of vitamins and minerals every day. Lunch is salmon, brown rice, and a salad. Dinner typically is more salmon, perhaps with broccoli, a sweet potato, and an apple for dessert. Cunningham says he likes to eat salmon twice a day because it's high in protein and extremely high in essential Omega-six oils, which is "the name of the game for the immune system."
"My lifestyle isn't built around longevity, it's built around health," he says. "I live in the moment. My exercise age, and I don't mean to brag, is late twenties, early thirties."
Hesselgesser also has a salmon-rich diet, though she skips the morning oatmeal in favor of an egg and wheat toast and sometimes eats plain chicken with no seasoning at dinner. Her dessert indulgence? Plain yogurt with strawberries or blueberries.
"I'm healthier now than I was in my thirties or forties," she says.