Life Extension Magazine®

Issue: Dec 2000

A Second Youth

A second youth—the results of good nutrition, supplementation and hard work.

Scientifically reviewed by: Dr. Gary Gonzalez, MD, on January 2021. Written By Twig Mowatt.

Mary Louise Zeller  

At 57, Mary Louise Zeller is among the oldest Taekwondo champions in the world, having won eight National championship titles since taking up the Korean form of martial arts at age 46. She routinely beats competitors who are still in their teens. But as impressive as it is to break 3 one-inch boards by hand and land precision kicks at face-level to her opponent, what she is most proud of is the way she learned to overcome fear. There was plenty to overcome.

On Mother’s Day in 1989, Mary Louise and her family were touring the house of some friends, when her 18-month-old son Adam slipped his hand out of hers and ran ahead to investigate. Mary Louise followed, entering an upstairs room just in time to see Adam topple through the screen of a ceiling-to-floor window and fall 20 feet onto the concrete patio below. She heard him hit the ground. Adam miraculously survived, but the seconds between the start of his two-story plunge and the moment that Mary Louise realized he was still alive infused her with a terror that changed the way she lived. Six-weeks pregnant at the time of Adam’s accident, Mary Louise suffered a miscarriage. By the time Adam was treated and released from the hospital, she was determined to protect him at all costs, even if that meant never letting him out of her sight.

But too much mother-son time isn’t healthy either, a fact that was pointed out to Mary Louise by one of her best friends, who also happens to be a psychotherapist. “She told me ‘You think he's only safe in your arms and he thinks he’s only safe in your arms, and the two of you are ruining each other,’ ” Mary Louise remembers. “And, then she told me that of the 30 standard symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I had 29. She said the best thing I could do for myself was to spend some time away from my son every day.”

Though receptive to the advice, Mary Louise had a problem—she didn’t know what to do with herself. Exercise was one option—she was out of shape and about 30 pounds overweight at the time—but she couldn’t get too excited about aerobics, running or weight training. That’s when she saw an ad in the local newspaper for Taekwondo, which described its benefits as fitness, mental strength, discipline and focus. Since PTSD affects the ability to focus, Mary Louise thought she might be on to something. On her first stop at William Kim’s Taekwondo Center in Vallejo, California (Mary Louise now lives in Linden, Utah), she was intrigued. Her instructor didn’t treat her as a middle-aged woman with limitations, rather he urged her to push herself at every opportunity. And it was hard. “For the first three weeks of blocks, kicks and punches, the pain was so bad, I don’t know why I didn’t quit,” she says. “But there was enough vitality and aliveness in what I was doing that I just kept going.” Six months later, Mary Louise earned her blue belt.

It was then that her Taekwondo instructor, Master William Kim, asked Mary Louise to begin competing. A Taekwondo tournament consists of two events, technique or forms, which is a choreographed series of movements, and sparring, which can be risky. (As Mary Louise explains, “If you aren’t totally mindful in the ring, you’re liable to end up with someone’s foot in your mouth.”) Though so nervous she could hardly breathe before her first competition, Mary Louise came to life on the floor, taking a second place in technique in the 30-and-older division and a first in sparring. For someone raised in Atlanta, where “nice girls don’t fight,” the experience was nothing less than transformational. “To me, that event proved that Taekwondo is life giving and life altering, and that it creates new possibilities for you no matter how old you are,” she says. “It felt like I’d been given a second youth.”

Mary Louise Zeller  

From there, Mary Louise picked up her training pace, practicing as much as four hours a day. After winning five National Championships in form and full-contact sparring in the 30-and-older division, she moved into a more challenging age group—the 18-and-older division. There she competed for three years without placing, then nabbed top honors in form. Mary Louise has now been the National gold medalist in technique or forms for three years running in the 18-and-older division, placing as high as fourth in sparring. Along the way, she advanced to fourth degree black belt, a level that few women in the world achieve. She can do more push-ups than men half her age and runs the stadium steps at Brigham Young University faster than the student athletes with whom she trains. She even trained at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs alongside some of the country’s most promising — and youngest — athletes.

Today she is a master instructor at her own martial arts school where she has trained 25 National champions. She also participated in the first Master Instructor Training Course for Foreigners in Korea. Last July, she returned to Korea to compete in the Korea Open, where she became an instant celebrity as both the oldest competitor and the only American to win a gold medal, earning the nickname “Ninja Grandma.” (Mary Louise has 7- and 11-year-old grandchildren.)

“I know I’m not genetically extraordinary,” says MaryLouise, who lost 6 inches off her waist and hips to turn around middle-aged spread. She now weighs ten pounds less than she did at age 16 and has only 19 percent body fat. “I was on a very ordinary path called ‘the decline of aging.’ What I’ve done is the result of good nutrition, supplements and I’ve worked and trained really hard.”

A nutrition coach helped her develop a diet to complement her active lifestyle. She typically eats six small meals a day, two or three of which are apt to consist of protein shakes—all of which goes toward her daily goal of 120 grams of protein. For the remainder of her meals, Mary Louise sticks to skinless turkey and chicken breast, fresh tuna fish and other lean cuts of fish. “I’m not concerned about fat. The principle problem in diet is refined carbohydrates or simple sugars,” says Mary Louise. “If you only change one thing about your diet, you should change that.”

Mary Louise eats plenty of organically grown fresh vegetables, either raw or lightly steamed, so as not to destroy valuable enzymes in the cooking process. Bean sprouts are a particular favorite because they pack in so many nutrients. She also likes to snack on raw carrots. “If you eat live food, you’re going to feel more alive,” she advises. She also favors complex carbohydrates, the kind you find in whole grains, barley, oats and brown rice, eating three servings of them daily. But, as careful as she is to adhere to a healthy menu, she relishes the occasional “day off” when she eats whatever strikes her fancy from French fries to chocolate. The only caveat is that whatever treat she selects has to be incredibly rich and delicious, like chocolate truffles. “I’ll put it this way, I don’t waste my day off on Twinkies,” says Mary Louise. “I go for the good stuff.”

Mary Louise Zeller  

For supplements, Mary Louise turns to her mainstays of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—vitamins A, B12, C and E. She believes that her supplement program has boosted her immune system significantly, noting that she hasn’t had a full-blown cold or flu in at least 10 years and her bone density tests better than most 25-year-olds. She has no symptoms of menopause.

“I’m out to demonstrate that the decline of aging is a choice,” she says. “At 57, my body has never been stronger and I’m in the best shape of my life. Taekwondo is my de-aging strategy. I suspect that it’s not the body that limits us in aging, it’s what we believe about getting old that makes us age.”

—Twig Mowatt