Lifting Spirits—and Lots of Weight

A champion weightlifter in his 80s and what it tells us about physical health and aging

Paul McCuistion is direct and matter of fact about most things, especially weightlifting and aging. So when you ask the 84-year-old how, in the space of just a single year, he went from having a heart attack and using a wheelchair to setting world records for strength, he’s characteristically blunt. “Determination, I guess,” he says.

That’s the power of both physical and mental health, especially for the aging. For all his physical prowess, McCuistion’s mental turnaround has been just as remarkable. (See also: Health Benefits of Positive Thinking.) As the Masonic Homes of California recognizes American Heart Month, that’s an important reminder of both the profound risk of heart disease—the number one killer in America—and also our own abilities to push back.

McCuistion, a former treasury agent, suffered a heart attack in 2013. By the time he moved into the Masonic Homes in 2017, he was using a wheelchair and “could hardly take two or three steps,” he says. “I was in pretty rough shape. It was kind of like, ‘Either get up or die.’ So I decided to get up.”

McCuistion started working out at the campus gym. The turnaround was rapid. So much so that by 2018, a fellow Masonic Homes resident who was involved in powerlifting invited McCuiston to try out some heavier weights. With no special training or practice, McCuistion, then age 83, deadlifted 226 pounds—unofficially, a world record for his age. A few months later, he was invited to his first competition of the World Association of Bench Pressers and Deadlifters. As an amateur, he set records for his age in the bench press, deadlift, and a combined contest. It was a remarkable achievement in weightlifting and aging.

Since then, McCuistion has set even more age records. “People come up to me and say, ‘My God, how do you do it? My dad can’t lift that and he’s half your age.’”

While his experience is extreme, it underscores the importance of exercise. That’s important for the body, of course, but also for the mind. Reflecting on his lowest moments in the wake of his heart problems, when McCuistion had lost more than 50 pounds, he describes his diminished physicality as a spiritual burden. “People asked if I was depressed, and I was. You’re looking in the mirror and you’re just skin and bones. But I was able to get back and get myself in shape.”

It’s important to stay active as you age. While his routine may be extreme for most, for others, heart-healthy exercise routines can be simple. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends forming a walking group with friends or enrolling in an exercise class with neighbors, along with eating healthier and tracking your weight and blood pressure.

For McCuistion, the next step is to make history. At 85, he’ll be able to compete in a new age category—meaning a whole new set of records to break.