'My heart attack could have finished me – but now I'm back bodybuilding at 62'

Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.

Sport England has reported that 40% of adult women aren’t getting active enough – and a huge factor in that is a fear of judgement.

We want to remind everyone that women of all ages, shapes, races and abilities can be fit, strong and love their bodies. You don’t have to look a certain way to be healthy.

Each week we meet a woman who is redefining what it means to be strong, challenging perceptions and carving her own path in the fitness world.

Jay Hyrons was a competitive bodybuilder for years, but life dealt her a difficult hand. After being widowed young, she faced a head-on car collision, colostomy surgery and a cardiac arrest that almost killed her.

But now, in her 60s, Jay is body building again. She’s proud of her scars and has even recorded a fitness video to inspire other older women to push beyond their limits.

Tell us about your relationship with fitness and body building?

From a very young age fitness was always a huge part of my life.

On top of the usual school sports and swimming, I was a dancer; that was my real passion. At 10 years old I made my stage debut singing and tap dancing as the lead in Baby Face. I really wanted to be a ballet dancer but my mother wouldn’t allow it.

When my husband died in the Falklands War in 1982, I also lost my home as it went with his job.

I moved back to Somerset but I felt lost and a friend suggested I join her health club – that was my first introduction to weight training. A couple of years later I went on to run the same health club and got my first fitness qualification to teach.

Bodybuilding followed because I loved pumping iron.

Gladys Portugues was my inspiration. I just got carried away after the birth of my second child and then, as I built up the muscles, someone suggested that I compete.

Though I was used to being on stage as a dancer, it felt like a whole different world parading my body on stage in a bikini and being judged for what I looked like.

What challenges have you faced in your life?

My life has felt like a roller coaster of constant challenges.

I had my first major surgery aged 20. It was an emergency c-section and it was touch and go whether my baby and I would survive.

In the years between I have suffered four miscarriages, a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, car accidents and multiple bereavements. I have also been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, asthma and spinal problems.

It’s difficult having invisible illnesses as people often think you look fine when you are in fact in pain, feel awful and the last place you want to be is the gym.

People can see physical things like a broken leg, but when your husband has been killed in a war and you become a widow at just 24 it’s devastating. That’s not something people can see or understand.

I have recently been diagnosed with severe and complex PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – after a medical negligence left me both traumatised and with a colostomy.

By the time I had this last surgery it was my fourth laparotomy, and I have also had four lots of keyhole surgery over the years. That’s more than eight times my abdominal muscles have been cut through.

Since the surgery I had experienced chest pains but they got worse, coupled with a breathlessness I could not put down to asthma. My GP fast tracked me and during an angiogram I experienced a cardiac arrest.

The hospital staff were amazing, they eventually got me back into sinus rhythm and informed me that it had been hard to bring me back, technically I was dead for two minutes.

During a nine-day stay on a cardiac ward the doctors discovered the underlying cause of the cardiac arrest was a stress cardiomyopathy.

Even if you arrest in hospital, the survival rate is only 17-20%. As you can imagine, that’s really scary. So I am a survivor in more ways than one.

How has fitness helped you through the difficult times?

From a very young age I would lose myself in dance and found it the most amazing stress relief.

Fitness also helps recovery time from surgery and illness. As long as we do not over exercise, which can have the opposite effect, we can improve our immune function, our recovery rate and diminish risks of complications because our cardiovascular health is good.

After my colostomy, I heard someone say that the hernia rate amongst ostomates is 75% – and that is both sad and unnecessary to me.

I am five and half years down the road now and still hernia-free even though I’m almost 62.

Strong abdominal muscles are very significant in that, so last year I made a fitness video in collaboration with CliniMed Ltd for hernia prevention. It is my dearest wish that we can reduce the hernia rate and the associated misery it brings.

When I had the cardiac arrest, that’s probably when fitness helped me the most. I was initially told that there would be heart muscle damage, which devastated me. But my heart made a full recovery and the doctor agreed that all my years of training had made the difference.

What made you decide to return to bodybuilding? 

From the time I had the head-on car crash in 2000 that knocked me out of bodybuilding competition, I always wanted to bodybuild again.

The orthopaedic surgeon said I could never train again and that I should just get used to it. As you can probably tell, I am a very resilient and determined woman and somehow, I just knew I would find a way.

I’m a qualified clinical personal fitness trainer and knew that there would be a way to train around my injuries, I just had to find it, and I did.

My recovery from my colostomy surgery was fraught with complications and the heart attack could have been the last straw, but it was like it flipped a switch in me.

They offered me rehabilitation at the cardiac unit and I declined because I had always done my own. The nurse politely told me most patients lose their confidence after a heart attack and needed the emotional support. I almost laughed at that. For me that was not a problem.

I researched everything about it and followed the doctor’s advice to the letter. I had no fear because the care was so amazing that there are no PTSD symptoms around that trauma. My physical recovery was all important.

Four weeks after I left hospital, I went to the gym and had to use the lift as I was still walking with a stick and couldn’t manage the stairs. I did six sets of bicep curls with 2.5kg dumbbells and went home.

Two weeks later I managed a five-mile walk.

Within a few months I had upped my leg press to 160kg and was walking on air, bodybuilding was back in my life. Though far short of the 250kg of past training sessions, it was a huge achievement.

The thing that I have found is that my cervical stenosis and fibromyalgia hold me back way more than having a stoma.

That’s where my nickname #BrokenBodyBuilder comes from. I will never be able to bodybuild to the level I could before and at my age I wouldn’t want to, but I’m still more active than most 25-year olds.

Bodybuilders are always striving for the perfect bodies, but if we are privileged to grow old, we somehow have to accept the way it changes. I just have a bag and a huge scar on top, I won’t let it make me feel bad about myself, it’s who I am inside that matters. Women are under way too much pressure to look perfect.

Being incontinent and the trauma of what happened has caused me much mental anguish, yet it has played a significant part in my personal growth and self-acceptance.

Of course, what I look like is important to me, as it would be for anyone, but now there is a major difference – what I look like is not what defines me.

What does the term ‘strong woman’ mean to you? 

When people talk about strength it can have so many meanings.

It’s interesting, when I was physically able to free squat 120kg, I looked incredibly strong. My nickname was Lyndsay Wagner, who used to play the Bionic Woman, and all my life people have told me how strong I am, but I didn’t feel it, not inside.

The past five years have without a doubt been the toughest of my entire life, including my husband being killed in the war.

When they brought me out of the induced coma in intensive care, I couldn’t compute all the tubes in my body, they were everywhere. Coping with the vulnerability that goes with not even being able to turn yourself over in bed was so incredibly hard for me.

Then to nearly die again a year later, before I had even recovered from the first time, that was a big ask. It was almost too much for me. I’ve never felt so utterly fragile and vulnerable. And I came through it, though I am still battling with the PTSD, treatment is getting me there.

Now, I do think I am a ‘strong woman’, not because I look like one, not because I’ve survived, but because I have gone to the deepest depths of despair and vulnerability and I’m making my way back from it.

I’m not ashamed to have PTSD or the fact that my journey is still ongoing. These things take time just as building muscle does. It really is ok to not be ok.

What do you hope your story will teach younger women?

These days, many young girls are lost, with unrealistic expectations of themselves.

Body image can only be healthy if our mind agrees that what we see in the mirror is good. That should never be about perfection, any bodybuilder will tell you perfection doesn’t actually exist! It’s about acceptance of our uniqueness.

Fitness will stand you in good stead for challenges which we all have to face in our journey through life. It helps us physically, mentally and spiritually and most importantly gives us a quality of life.

How cool would it be to live to see your kids have kids, and even those kids have kids and still be able to play with them?

I now log my fitness journey on YouTube, and I am passionate about sharing my life experiences and knowledge with people. I’m now a motivational speaker, inspiring people to live the best life they can.

To quote Sylvester Stallone, ‘It’s not how hard you can hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.’

I am Team GB

Toyota has teamed up with Team GB to re-launch the hugely successful participation campaign ‘I am Team GB’.

Inspired by the achievements of Team GB athletes and the amazing efforts of local community heroes, Team GB has created ‘The Nation’s Biggest Sports Day’, which will take place on the 24thAugust.

Over the weekend, there will be hundreds of free and fun activities across the country, put on by an army of volunteers; the ‘I am Team GB Games Makers’.

To Join the Team and be part of The Nation’s Biggest Sports Day sign up at: www.IAmTeamGB.com

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