Margaret Jennings meets cancer survivor Jennifer Sweeney, who describes how aone-to-one fitness class helps to keep her fighting fit aged 74.
Poised with boxing gloves mid-air and looking fiercely determined, 74-year-old Jennifer Sweeney is headlining a campaign to encourage older people to challenge their mindset around how much exercise they can do — regardless of age or illness.
Jennifer was the poster girl for the ‘I Can — Empowering Through Exercise’ campaign launched last year, run by the not-for-profit organisation Siel Bleu. She will again play a starring role when the week-long promotion gets off the ground on Monday.
The Dublin-based former English language teacher is a true example of the campaign’s message ‘Today I Can, Maybe Tomorrow You Can, Too!’ having embarked on a Siel Bleu exercise programme when recovering from chemotherapy and radiotherapy, following an oesophagal cancer diagnosis in March 2016.
The shock of the diagnosis was compounded by the fact that her partner of 30 years, Sean, had been diagnosed with the same cancer and died, in 2007: “My attitude to that was ‘go ahead guys — do whatever you have to do’; I just put my trust completely in the medical profession and I was just incredibly lucky and blessed. I was looked after fairly fast; it was stage-two and they got it on time and I didn’t need surgery,” she tells Feelgood.
However, afterwards, when she “went downhill with severe pain and extreme fatigue” and was concerned about her lack of exercise, her friend suggested trying out the Siel Bleu programme and because there were no classes near enough to her house at the time, she embarked on got weekly one-to-one sessions with a personal instructor in her home.
Spotted 👀 Jennifer on the DART #FitnessForSeniors #fightingphysicalinactivity #ICaSoCanYou snap Jennifer to be in with a chance of winning a @SielBleuIreland class and getting as fit as her 💪🏼 https://t.co/HTsJS3InNx pic.twitter.com/8zdmKJycPc— Siel Bleu Ireland (@SielBleuIreland) June 18, 2019
Her first instructor, in 2017, was Paul and she has had two others since, Craig and now Sean: “I’ve had three boyfriends — it’s wonderful,” she jokes.
While she has heard there is a good ambience at Siel Bleu classes, “people talking to each other and perking up”, the one-to-one approach really works for her, because of the quality of that relationship.
It’s not just like physio either; it’s more holistic, she says:
“We talk all the time. It’s not just: ‘Do this, do that’. It’s a question of doing various exercises and how they’re affecting me personally — and having a bit of a laugh.
Like most of us, Jennifer sometimes falls by the wayside, despite good intentions, between her weekly sessions:
“But I come clean to Sean about doing my daily homework and say: ‘I didn’t do too well this week’ and there’s no point in pretending. And he says: ‘We will do better next week’.
“Also, when I’m in a down mood I always feel better for the session with him. It perks me up, it gets me more positive, it gets my mind working better too.”
The €30 it costs her a week is “a necessity, not a luxury”, she adds.
And in case you’re wondering about the boxing, that’s Jennifer’s favourite part. — at the end of each session:
“I love the boxing. I have the gloves and Sean has these pads he wears on his hands and I box him and it’s great fun — and it’s very energetic. It always puts a smile on my face.”
Her fighting spirit didn’t emerge just now though: at age 37 it was discovered she had “a hole in the heart” which had gone undiagnosed since birth and she had emergency surgery.
At that stage, she had also been suffering from bulimia for a decade, but by the time she reached her early 50s — when many women are struggling with the menopause — she decided to put an end to the eating disorder.
“I stopped when I was 52. I used to tell people I got sick of getting sick — I just got sick of it; my body just said: ‘Ah come on…’,” she says. “” she says of that time. “Now I’m very conscious of eating healthily.”
She has always walked and owned dogs to accompany her to accompany her. At the moment, Muffin, her beloved 15-year-old rescue dog, is a bit beyond stepping it out, though she does take the jack russell “out for a little toddle”.
“I’m 74 now and I can’t say I’m fitter than I’ve ever been — because that would be stupid — but I’m certainly very fit for my age,” she says.
She is delighted to be part of the encouraging ‘I can, so can you’ message. And having gone through her own ups and downs, she says: “I look around me and see people who just give in, but I want to say ‘C’mon… go for it… Live now’.”
More than 4,500 people are attending Siel Bleu exercise classes weekly, nationwide. Check out Siel Bleu at www.sielbleu.ie