Open just about any women’s fitness magazine, and you’ll find at least one or two personal-transformation testimonials somewhere inside. At first glance, Ernestine Shepherd’s story sounds awfully similar. But here’s the kicker: When Shepherd started her fitness journey, she was 56 years old and had never worked out a day in her life. That was two decades, 15 pounds, nine marathons and three bodybuilding shows ago.
Now 75, Shepherd is in the Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest competing female bodybuilder. Every day, she gets up at 3 a.m. to run 10 miles before heading to the gym to train clients of all ages. In her off-gym time, she keeps a busy schedule modeling for magazines and commercials, delivering motivational speeches and chilling with her husband Collin — to whom she’s been married for 54 years — and their 53-year-old son and 14-year-old grandson.
Most important to Shepherd, she’s following through on the promise she made to her older sister Velvet, with whom she began her fitness adventure all those years ago. “She said we’d either be in the Guinness Book of World Records,” Shepherd says, “or Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Barely a year into their new lifestyle, however, Velvet’s health took a turn for the worse. She experienced severe headaches and went blind in one eye.
“When she realized she was getting sick, she said, ‘If anything ever happens to me, I want you to continue on our fitness journey because our mission and ministry is to inspire other people, to teach them how to live a healthy life,’” Shepherd recalls. Still, when Velvet died of an aneurysm, it rocked Shepherd’s world, and for the first time in her life, she experienced health problems of her own.
“I just didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I went in the house. I hated everybody. I lost my faith. I ended up with acid reflux, high blood pressure, panic attacks, all these things. I had to go on high blood pressure medication. I took something for the acid reflux. I was depressed.”
When she began to pick up the pieces, Shepherd called Raymond Day, the trainer she and Velvet had worked with. He took her to the gym three days a week, and Shepherd hasn’t looked back since. Her muscles took shape, her cellulite disappeared, her body fat dropped from 37 percent to the low teens, and she ditched the medications. In 2007, when Shepherd was 71, Day turned her over to 1995 Mr. Universe Yohnnie Shambourger to train for her first bodybuilding competition.
When she won the Master’s Class at the NPC East Coast Natural Tournament of Champions, Guinness called. In March 2010, Shepherd was officially inducted into the world-record hall of fame at a ceremony in Rome, where she scattered Velvet’s ashes.
Despite all her physical hard work, Shepherd attributes most of her health and longevity to a positive outlook. At the end of every day, she reads a prayer that her sister gave her and asks herself if she lived it out over the previous 24 hours:
I promise myself …
To be so strong that nothing can disturb my peace of mind …
To make all my friends feel there is something worthwhile in them …
To look at the sunny side of everything and make my optimism come true.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as I am about my own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievement of the future …
To give so much time to improving myself that I have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.
To think well of myself and proclaim this fact to the world, not in loud words but in great deeds,
And to live in the faith that the whole world is on my side, so long as I am true to the best that is in me.
At 75, Ernestine Shepherd isn’t looking back or slowing down. She has turned her face into the wind and is picking up speed.