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Inactive people Self-care and development Well-being Tackling Loneliness

Meet IronGran: The Late Bloomer Helping Other Older People Thrive

At the grand age of 74, Edwina Brocklesby became the oldest British woman to complete an Ironman. The self-confessed exercise addict from Kingston upon Thames founded the charity Silverfit in 2013 and has coached and coaxed thousands of older people to become healthier and happier by providing fun, fitness, and friendship. Now 79, and a matter of months after hip replacement surgery, she shows no signs of slowing down. UK Coaching’s Blake Richardson caught up with her

That frequently used saying, ‘age is just a number’, could have been written especially for Edwina Brocklesby – or ‘IronGran’ as she is also affectionately known.

Most women Edwina’s age, who are well into their second decade of retirement, are enjoying the rest and relaxation that brings.

Not so Edwina, who derives enjoyment from keeping busy and keeping moving.

When she isn’t engaging, motivating, and supporting other older people to reap the benefits of physical activity, she is busy clocking up the mileage herself.

And the miles ridden have been matched by column inches written about her many escapades, to the extent that she has become a torchbearer for older adults, sending a message that it is never too late to get involved in coaching.

Her adventures include completing five marathons, six Ironman events around the globe (so that’s really 11 marathons!) and being part of the oldest team to complete the 3,014-mile The Race Across America ultra-endurance road cycling race.

Since founding Silverfit in 2013 – a charity that promotes lifelong fitness and healthier ageing through physical activity and social connectivity – the 79-year-old regularly clocks up 60-hour working weeks too.

Literally and figuratively, there is no stopping her.

Just as surprising as her list of achievements is the discovery that Edwina didn’t start running until she hit 50, confessing to being “un-sporty” up to that point in her life.

“I was a full-time social worker with kids, and I wasn’t active at all really. It all started when I was 50, when I ran my first half marathon, and then I ran my first full marathon at the age of 52.

It really is never too late to start getting a bit more active, have fun, and make new friends,” says Edwina of the therapeutic benefits of exercise.

In her book, ‘Irongran: How Keeping Fit Taught Me that Growing Older Needn't Mean Slowing Down’, she explains how running was the motivational fuel she used to keep her going through the grief of losing her husband.

Pounding the pavements helped replenish her resilience levels and fill her with renewed energy, and she has never looked back.

“When it comes to changing your lifestyle, I think the social element is so important too. Our data shows that, from an analytical and statistical approach, it is the opportunity to build social connections which keeps people coming back week after week, helping to combat isolation as well as improving health and fitness.

It is vital that we face up to the ageing crisis. It becomes more and more important to people living longer that they stay healthier, and I want to play my part in making that happen.”

‘Do I qualify as a coach?’

Edwina is many things: role model, trailblazer, author, coach.

Surprisingly, she raises her eyebrows at the moniker ‘coach’.

“Do I qualify as a coach? I think the nearest I got was training to be a cycling leader, oh and maybe a Nordic Walk leader.”

I begged to differ and explained that leading cycling and Nordic Walking groups and Zumba classes (which is where I first saw Edwina, bouncing onto the stage leading a Zumba exhibition class at the 2018 Women in Sport North event at the BBC studios in Salford) is, unquestionably, coaching.

If you are helping people to be active and improve a person’s experience of sport and physical activity, by providing specialised support and guidance aligned to their individual needs and aspirations, then you are, by Sport England’s definition, a coach.

That includes sports coaches, exercise instructors, personal trainers, activity leaders, volunteers, community sport leaders, coach developers, parent helpers, and teachers.

Just as indisputable is the fact that Edwina possesses an infectious enthusiasm. This is a key factor, no doubt, behind the success of Silverfit – which has expanded to more than 20 venues across 13 London boroughs – and something the surgeon who operated on her damaged hip joint will also vouch for.

“I was up and walking about only 24 hours after hip replacement surgery in November,” explains Edwina. “I suspect the surgeon will say it’s because I had fairly strong muscles when I went into surgery.

“He jokingly describes me as mad and I’m sure will say the main problem for the hip was the amount of cycling I did when I was training for the 2022 World Triathlon Championship Finals in Abu Dhabi [Edwina qualified in the 75-79 age group]. I was stuck behind that red corridor for seven months and was really knocking up the mileage.”

You’re never too old to be a coach

Edwina – who was a social worker for 50 years – hopes her empowering story can inspire other ‘golden oldies’ to follow in her footsteps and perhaps take that first step into coaching, and continue her admirable work at dispelling the myth that old people can’t learn new things.

Not only is there truth in the popular sayings ‘it’s never too late’ and ‘age is just a number’, it is also true that anyone can coach, irrespective of their age or experience.

We must ensure that a wider range of people have opportunities to pursue careers in coaching, because it is important to have a diverse coaching workforce that reflects the range of communities coaches work with.
 
Some older people attending an activity session may feel more comfortable being supported by an older coach that they can relate to, and who can provide different perspectives, approaches, experiences, and attributes.

This is the ethos that Silverfit is rooted in, with their raison d’etre ‘led by older people for older people’.

Where did the idea for setting up the charity come from, I ask Edwina?

“I used to run an adoption agency and charity, ‘Parents for Children’. In 2007, I organised a trail marathon starting in the Lea Valley and finishing in what would become the Olympic Park, to raise funds. The race was called ‘Five to Go’, and the following year we ran it again and called it ‘Four to Go’. It got more and more popular, certainly as you began to see evidence of the Olympic Park being constructed.

“Then after the Olympics, quite a few of us at Serpentine Running Club began thinking of other ways that we could make the biggest difference. We thought setting up Silverfit would be the best way to do this, to help other older people get more active.

“We started off with a walking group in Hyde Park, then added Pilates classes as a second choice. Then we thought, ‘we’re not doing anything for men’, so we started walking football sessions. Over the years we’ve expanded across London and have a wide variety of activities on offer.

“Our Silver cheerleading dropped off a bit during Covid but that is starting to pick up again. It is very popular, and of course the music that you are stepping to, or dancing to effectively, with your pom poms is very much the music of the 70s, which has a great beat to it.”

Optimising technology for older adults

Whilst Edwina says she hasn’t experienced age discrimination as a coach or participant, she has noticed that only in recent years has there been a proliferation of opportunities for older people to take part in sport and physical activity.

“I was just talking to one of my fellow walkers about doing some TikTok, because as far as I can see there is very little TikTok for the older generation. There’s a market there then isn’t there, because most people have got smart phones, even the older generation. So, there are still gaps in terms of methods that can be capitalised on to engage older people.

“Don’t get me wrong, the tech side of things will be a huge challenge, and I appreciate I may be a bit better than some of my age when it comes to embracing technology.

“But we have to think of new ways of promoting healthier ageing through physical activity because of the tremendous benefits this brings.

I want people to enjoy ageing and I also want to promote inclusivity and diversity, providing opportunities for older people living in areas of economic deprivation and from all different backgrounds to have access to sport and physical activity, because it is in those areas and populations where you can make the greatest difference.”

 

Edwina Brocklesby factfile

  • Dr Edwina Brocklesby, 79, is the founder of Silverfit, a London charity led by older people for older people that promotes lifelong fitness and healthier ageing through physical activity and social connectivity.
  • Nicknamed ‘IronGran,’ aged 74 she became the oldest British woman to complete an Ironman – the world’s toughest triathlon challenge, comprising a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and full 26.2-mile marathon.
  • Ran her first half marathon at the age of 52 and has gone on to complete six Ironman.
  • Completed The Race Across America, an ultra-distance road cycling event, riding 3,000 miles in a four-woman relay. The RAAM is one of the longest annual endurance events in the world, where participants have nine days to ride from the West Coast to the East Coast of the United States.
  • Had hip replacement surgery in November and has made a speedy recovery. Confounded doctors by being up and walking only 24 hours after surgery.
  • Has supported thousands of older people to take part in more than 50 different classes: from Pilates, yoga, Zumba and tai chi, to walking football, cheerleading and Bollywood fitness.
  • Awarded a British Empire Medal in the 2019 New Year’s Honours List for services to the Health and Wellbeing of Older People.
  • Gained her PhD in 2005 – research linked to experience of fostering and adoption.

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