Susan Ershler is not your typical go-getter. She climbed the highest mountain in the world — Mount Everest — in her mid-40s, only the 12th American woman to do so. She went on to become the fourth woman — and, with her husband, the first married couple — to reach all Seven Summits, the highest mountains on the seven continents. And then in her 50s, just for the heck of it, she entered her first body sculpting competition ... and won.
"The summits changed my life. For the first time in my life, I felt content, like my life was complete," says Ershler, 59, a former corporate sales executive for Fortune 500 companies who began climbing when she was 36. It felt like kismet when she met the love of her life, professional mountain guide Phil Ershler, at the same time. Since turning 50 in 2006, she's also logged climbs in India, Peru, Chile and Tanzania.
Her climbs have inspired her message about perseverance. She sees a parallel between climbing mountains and climbing the career ladder, which she talks about in her book, Conquering the Seven Summits of Sales (HarperBusiness, 2014), and in her motivational speeches. She also works with the American Himalayan Foundation to help keep 750 girls in school in Nepal. "Putting a stop to child trafficking is my cause," she says.
During a recent stop in Washington, D.C., we spoke with Ershler about the workout regimen of a mountain climber, trying a bikini competition in her 50s and a childhood treat that has become her favorite indulgence.
What does it take to be an efficient mountain climber?
You've got to be strong enough. Phil told me I had to get strong legs, because you get exhausted on the climbs. You do what you can to mimic climbing at sea level, plus cardio and strength training to build up the lungs and the glutes. To prepare for Mount Everest, I put on a 40-pound backpack and spent my lunch breaks climbing 35 flights of stairs at my office building. I also became best friends with the StepMill at my gym. You also have to acclimatize your body to prepare to climb 29,035 feet high.
If that wasn't enough, at the age of 53, you competed in your first figure show, a body sculpting competition. What inspired you to do it?
At that time in my life, I needed to get tough again. I found a trainer who happened to be 65 and really tough. In the end, I won my class.
What do your workouts look like?
I work out every day, wherever I am. It rejuvenates you. I do traditional strength training first for 30 minutes, using the machines like the leg press. I like total-body moves [compound-muscle exercises] with free weights. I hike once a week. For cardio, I'm usually riding a spin bike — it's the only thing that gets my heart rate up like I want it to. I also like the StepMill, which I'll do fast for 30 minutes.
What's your favorite exercise?
[Ones for my] lower body, of course! But I also enjoy working my lats [upper back muscles], biceps, chest and triceps.
How do you eat to stay fit?
I try to eat clean all of the time. With climbing, you eat healthy before the climb. Once you get up to the top, you'll eat anything! But on a normal day, I'll have four hard-boiled egg whites, oatmeal with cinnamon and raspberries for breakfast. A snack is yogurt. For lunch, I like a spinach salad with grilled chicken and yam. My afternoon snack is 4 ounces of chicken breast. And for dinner, I'll have a white fish and green beans. If I'm still hungry? Scrambled egg whites with peppers.
What's your favorite non-clean eating indulgence?
It's always going to be chocolate. Dark chocolate. And I love Fudgsicles. They're actually not that bad – just 80 calories with 5 grams of sugar.
What's your message about staying fit in the 50-plus stage of life?
Exercise is rejuvenating for me and helps take the stress off. The perk is that exercising makes your body look the way it should. You get out of it what you put in. To stay fit after 50-plus stage of life: Project, Prepare, Persevere® - Project your future, start with an ambitious and clearly articulated vision, Prepare; create a detailed plan that delineates every step of your journey, and Persevere; work relentlessly to attain your vison despite the obstacles.
After the Seven Summits, that was the issue for me. I didn't have a big vision for myself. For the first 50 years of my life, I went after my goals. For the next 50, I decided to use my motivational speaking to help people reach theirs.
Stacy Julien is the executive online editor for the Health Channel.