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In photos of the sitting Supreme Court, 84-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg looks tiny compared to her colleagues, but don't be fooled: She is "TAN," says her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, and "by TAN I mean Tough. As. Nails."
Ginsburg's health has been a topic of discussion — and concern among Democrats — since President Trump was elected, but it's particularly buzzworthy right now because of a new book by Johnson that's officially out as of Tuesday: "The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong...And You Can Too!" Also, because Axios reports that Trump expects to have the chance to replace her, commenting to an unnamed source, "What does she weigh? 60 pounds?"
Ginsburg may be more of a judicial heavy than a physical heavy, but once you see her workout, you'll bet on her over Trump in a push-up contest any day. She does multiple sets of full-on, military-style push-ups. She does one-legged squats. She recently started doing planks. She is, it seems, an iron octogenarian.
The workout itself is a balanced, solid routine that includes some cardio, weights and other strength and resistance training, stretching, core work and balance — all kinds of good, evidence-based moves.
Ginsburg gives extensive public credit to Johnson, who has been training her since 1999; he, in turn, gives props to her will of steel.
I asked him how Ginsburg, who has twice survived cancer, can do this workout at 84, and he pointed to her tough-as-nails character, "her resistance, her tenacity."
"I was talking to the justice about this recently," he said in a phone interview, "and I said, 'Well, justice, if nothing else, I hope the message will get out that you're never too old to start working out and exercising the body. So they can't use age as an excuse."
Hear hear, said Dr. Eddie Phillips of Harvard Medical School, the chief of physical medicine and rehab at the Boston VA (and my co-host on the exercise podcast "The Magic Pill.") He said he's especially impressed by how Ginsburg progressed over the last 18 years of training — for example, from doing push-ups against the wall, to push-ups on her knees, to multiple sets of full push-ups.
"What Justice Ginsburg shows is that indeed, you can get stronger at any age — at 65, at 83 — and I suspect, and the science shows, that she'll be doing a workout at 93, and still adding muscle and still adding functional capacity," he said. "It also keeps her mentally sharp, and extends her life."
The good news for people who want to emulate the Notorious RBG but don't love to work out: She does the workout only twice a week.
Exercise researcher Wayne Westcott, director of the exercise science program at Quincy College, has found that working each muscle group twice a week tends to be enough, and is generally as effective as three times a week. And as people age, he noted, they don't recover as quickly.
"So for people over age 50, let alone over age 80, typically we recommend not training the same muscle groups more than twice a week, because they won't fully recover," he said. So if Ginsburg is doing a total body workout, "which she certainly is, twice a week is perfect for her."
Because of Westcott's research, he was not surprised that Ginsburg managed to get stronger even at an advanced age: "Age does not seem to be a factor in responding to the strength-training stimulus," he said, "as long as you get plenty of protein, because old people don't assimilate protein as well."
Asked about Trump's comments on Ginsburg's size, both Westcott and Phillips responded that being small doesn't necessarily mean a person is weak or frail.
It can be a problem when older people lose muscle mass — it's called sarcopenia — or bone. But strength training offsets that process, allowing them to maintain or even gain muscle mass. Westcott's research has found that even people in their 90s can regain several pounds of muscle mass through training.
I have a feeling "The RBG Workout" is going to sell very well — it's an appealing little yellow tome, easy to throw into a gym bag, and all the exercises are illustrated by pictures of Justice Ginsburg doing the moves, with her big glasses, pulled-back hair and big button earrings.
So I asked Dr. Phillips whether he had any cautions or caveats for readers who are maybe starting from a not-so-super-fit point.
"For anyone inspired by Justice Ginsburg, as we all should be, I would say start slow, but start," he said. "Get moving and then progress slowly, and get some guidance just as she did."
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