Ernestine Shepherd loves to run, hitting the park at 2:30 a.m. for her daily ten miles. She also loves lifting weights, targeting a different body part each of the four days a week she works out. But more than anything, Shepherd – named Oldest Female Bodybuilder by the Guinness Book of World Records – loves to inspire others.
“It’s my joy, it’s really a joy to me,” she tells PEOPLE.
Shepherd celebrated her 80th birthday on June 16, but the nine-time bodybuilding competitor, author and coach isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
“Exercise keeps me happy and alive, so it’s just another day, that’s all,” she says of her birthday. “I tell everybody that age is nothing but a number. And if there ever was an anti-aging pill, it would have to be exercise. My whole life has changed. It has changed for the better.”
While you’d never know it from her impressive biceps and ripped abs, the octogenarian is a recent convert to exercise. It was only at 56 that her sister convinced the once sedentary Shepherd to join a gym.
“She said, ‘What we are going to do, is we are going to become bodybuilders.’ ‘What?’ I said. ‘Yes, we are going to become bodybuilders,’ ” Shepherd recalls.
Sadly, her sister had an aneurysm and died shortly thereafter, and Shepherd stopped going to the gym.
“I really wouldn’t do anything, I was complete mess,” Shepherd says. “I did absolutely, positively nothing.”
Two years later, Shepherd said her sister came to her in a dream and encouraged her to get back to the gym. At 71, she competed in her first bodybuilding event and earned her Guinness title.
“I’ve won a large number of trophies. It’s just been wonderful, it’s been a joy, it’s made me very very happy,” Shepherd says. “And from doing these things, I’ve inspired others to start working out and compete in bodybuilding shows, or whatever they see fit that they want to do.”
“I get letters, cards. Every day I hear something from someone, and it’s just wonderful, because all I want to do is try to motivate and help others have a healthly, happy, confident lifestyle.”
Her goal is to show everyone the joys of exercise.
“I’ve got more years behind me than I’ve got in front of me, and what I have left, I want to help as many people as I can,” Shepherd says. “There’s a song that Mahalia Jackson used to sing, it went, ‘If I can help somebody, as I pass along, then my living shall not be in vain.’ And that’s what I want to do. So my living will not be in vain.”
“I am so crazy about him. I started drinking the egg whites because he did,” she says. “My son gave me all his DVDs. When I hear that theme song, I move!”