Melissa Neill

I Found Fitness in My 50s and I Help Others Do the Same

By Melissa Neill, as told to Helen Iatrou
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
April 11, 2023

At 49, I was going through a divorce and experiencing difficult emotions. I blamed my marriage breakdown on my appearance. I lacked confidence and suffered from poor body image. To help myself through this difficult time, I turned to exercise.

I attended two or three group CrossFit sessions a week. The powerlifting and high intensity training was so damn hard that I couldn't think of anything but getting through the workout! I would also go jogging once or twice a week to clear my head.

It worked. Getting stronger and fitter really helped me feel better and more confident. I found something outside work that I was reasonably good at, and I fell in love with the process of transforming my body.

But before I found success, I spent two years feeling as if I was failing. I had gained weight after having three children and I felt very uncomfortable about how I looked. I was told early on it wasn’t possible to reach my fitness goals at my age.

The Women Who Inspired Me

The only reason I forged ahead was because I saw female role models who were my age and older who were experiencing success, like Ernestine Shepherd. She is an enormous source of inspiration for me as she started working out at the age of 56 and won her first bodybuilding competition at 71. Ernestine is now 85 and working as a personal trainer.

It Can Start with Just 10 Minutes a Day

I went through a string of personal trainers who didn’t seem to understand the way women’s bodies work at this age, so I took matters into my own hands.

I read studies and other research on menopause and fat loss, and how that impacts women’s bodies over the age of 40, including those going through perimenopause or menopause.

I learned to focus on heavy lifting and good nutrition. I figured out what didn’t work for me: too much cardio, not eating enough to fuel my body for workouts, intermittent fasting, not consuming enough protein and carbs, and not resting enough.

I also stopped drinking. Before my marriage problems, I was drinking most days and even more on social occasions. But I realized I couldn’t build muscle and lose fat if I was consuming alcohol. Stopping drinking is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

At first, I was getting stuck because I felt as if I didn’t have enough time to work out. Then I read the book Atomic Habits. The author, James Clear, says you only need to focus on a task like working out for 10 minutes a day. When you look at it like that, it's much easier to motivate yourself to start. Often, we don’t get started at all because we believe we need to spend hours on an activity like working out. Once you start, you usually end up doing more than 10 minutes.

I believe midlife is an ideal time to take stock, make adjustments, and change direction, especially if you’re not happy with what you’re doing, like I was.

Finding Ways to Pay It Forward

Once I started making a little progress, I didn’t have any difficulty establishing myself in the fitness field. Many women seemed to be crying out for the information I was able to provide.

Whenever I spoke with women over 40, many of them would tell me they were struggling with their weight. Some of the information available to them was sketchy. Some of it was misleading and even dangerous—like extreme fasting and endless cardio workouts.

I started my YouTube channel in 2019 because I realized no one was talking about how perimenopause and menopause can affect fitness goals. One video I created on losing weight over 40 appeared to really resonate with many women who viewed it. I had quite a number of people tell me that it contained the information they needed. Today, I have over 200,000 subscribers.

In tackling something new, I think the main challenges we face are doing away with self-limiting beliefs and putting ourselves in the right frame of mind. If you want to make a change in your life, it's really important to grab the bull by the horns.

Getting In the Best Shape of Your Life in Midlife

I think many women in their 40s and beyond believe they can’t improve their fitness, but I’m proof that you can actually achieve your fitness goals in midlife.

It’s a shame that big fitness and weight loss brands tend to ignore women our age. They don’t differentiate between age groups and don’t talk about what’s needed at this stage in our lives. We tend to feel invisible even though we have plenty of spending power.

We want to look and feel our best but it’s a little harder, so we need to be patient and give ourselves time. And we need to use the right strategies. You can’t do what you did in your younger days and expect to see results.

I launched my first weight loss and fitness program specifically designed for women over 40 in 2020 and also started coaching women, which has given me a lot of insight. I offer online programs through my app Body By Bikini as well as online one-on-one coaching.

What I now know works for women over 40 are these three key things: strength training, high intensity interval training (HIIT), and a sound nutrition plan with plenty of protein and sufficient carbs. It can be that simple. It’s also important to take care of our bodies by not working out every day, getting enough sleep, and managing stress.

Taking the Bikini Competition Stage in My 50s

In 2015, a friend told me about bikini fitness competitions and I decided to give one a try.

When I first stepped on stage, I was both nervous and excited. I don’t believe anyone has anything but admiration when the host calls out your age on stage, and it’s over 50. And there is a lot of camaraderie backstage with the other women.

I don't have the best natural physique or good genes. But I’m prepared to work harder than anyone else. I also have diastasis recti and an umbilical hernia, so my abs don’t look the same but I’ve learned poses that help.

I mostly compete against women over 40, and I’ve won the fitness model category twice at the age of 53. There’s one category called wellness where I compete against women less than half my age and I’ve taken third place. I’ve now also earned pro-card status, which means I’m in the elite level of bikini competitors.

Unfortunately, the competition organizers don’t showcase older competitors in their marketing. We’re often overlooked when it comes to sponsorship deals or being featured on a magazine cover. I think the scene is changing slowly though—competing is an expensive sport and we’re spending money just like the younger women.

A New Career Built Around a Passion

I believe competing instilled me with the discipline and mindset I needed to successfully launch and build a business that includes my fitness programs and my social media presence. I’m doing what I love.

You have to say “I can do this” and honestly believe you have as much chance as anyone to succeed. I like to say “see it, believe it, achieve it.” Age shouldn’t be a barrier to achieving your goals.

In my previous career in PR, I felt my creativity was stifled but now I can do stuff I enjoy, like dancing around in a slinky unitard. I like to create fun, educational content that will help women understand what they need to do to get in shape.

I don’t think I would have had my own fitness business 10 or 15 years ago. I didn’t have the confidence to freely express myself. I’m 55 today and one of the wonderful benefits of this age is not caring too much about what others think. Nowadays, I feel like the best part of my life has only just started.

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