She has a cascading grey pony tail but that’s not the first thing you notice about her. She’s a tiny, well-built woman, but that’s not the first thing you notice either.

It’s the welcoming, twinkling eyes and the gracious smile that pull you into the world of champion weightlifter and trainer, Ernestine Shepherd.

And especially so when she opens her arms and asks,”Where’s my hug?”

She loves her life, at 78, and spends most of it doing what the rest of us mere mortals dread:  running, walking, lifting weights and watching every morsel she puts in her mouth.

“I always want to be a good example to the people I work and train with, so I don’t want to tell them one thing and do another,” Shepherd said.

So she practices what she preaches, including being grateful for every day and sharing love in whatever ways she can.

But she hadn’t always been so cheerful and full of life. Her older sister, Mildred Blackwell, the one with which she started the physical training journey, died of an aneurism some years ago, and that left Shepherd feeling bereft of life and ready to give up completely.

“I just couldn’t understand why God had let such a thing happen. It made no sense to me,” she said. “I was so depressed and I felt like I couldn’t go on without her.”

But something strange happened and that was her salvation.

“I had a dream in which my sister scolded me. She reminded me of the mantra she’d chosen for us – Determined, Dedicated, Disciplined to Be Fit – and she chastised me for not continuing as I’d promised I would,” Shepherd said.

“I went to Rome and it happened to be on my sister’s birthday, the tag on the car that picked me up was 316, my sister’s birthday. The music that played in the hotel was Mildred’s favorite song, and it was in that moment that I became a new person,” Shepherd said.

“And I began to pray, ‘Restore the joy of my salvation.’”

It was in that moment that she regained her motivation and she hasn’t stopped since. When asked about those days that most people have, when there’s just no get up and go.

“I’m on a mission to let everyone know, especially the seniors, that they can have a happy, healthy, positive lifestyle if they’ll put in the effort,” Shepherd said, listing exercise, right eating, drinking plenty of water and walking every day.  And then with greater emphasis, she added, “And above all else, prayer. I tell everyone that.”

And she’s serious. She starts every day with prayer and meditation around 2:30 a.m., after having slept about four hours.

“I’ve never really needed a lot of sleep.”


Chauncey “The Trainer” Whitehead with his “fitness mother.”

Her next move, after a breakfast consisting of “two complete eggs, a bagel with jelly, 8 ounces of liquid egg whites, a handful of walnuts, a half cup crushed pineapple and 16 ounces of water,” is a 10-mile walk with a small group of fellow enthusiasts.

Once she’s finished and had another eight ounces of liquid egg whites and 16 ounces of water, she goes to the gym for a workout. Another workout. With friends.

At 10 a.m., she teaches a class on toning at the Energy Fitness and Wellness Center on Old Court and Liberty roads—only to come home by noon to a meal of chicken, brown rice and vegetables.

That may or may not be the last class of the day, depending on the day, but she’s usually in bed by 10:30 p.m. only to begin again at 2:30 the next morning.


Chauncey “The Trainer” Whitehead, as he is known regionally, said he met Shepherd 13 years ago while power-walking Liberty Road in Baltimore.

“We were walking the same 14-mile route. After that walk and subsequent walks our relationship grew and I affectionately refer to her as my ‘Fitness Mother,’ he said.

“We have teamed to promote healthier lifestyles throughout Baltimore and beyond,” he said, referring to the monthly community health walks they promote in Druid Hill Park.

One of those devotees, Linda Hollis attributes her “fine frame” to the regimen encouraged by Shepherd.

“I frequently get compliments on my physical appearance and I’m often asked where I work out. I tell them about Ernestine,” Hollis said. “She has guided me and others to a toned body and healthier lifestyle, I am forever grateful to her.”

Hollis has been training and taking Shepherd’s body sculpting classes for five years, and says their friendship “has blossomed into a sisterly bond.”

For Shepherd, it all started when she was a mere 56 and, at 5’5”, weighed 150 pounds. She and her sister, Mildred, who was 57 at the time, went shopping for bathing suits for the picnic their home church, Union Memorial UM, was having that summer.

They were not happy with what the mirrors showed them, so they decided on a physical education class at Coppin State University.

They enrolled in an aerobics class under the training of Jay Bennett and Simmons. Her sister worked a little harder, gained a lot of attention, even a newspaper feature, which made Shepherd a little envious. And when Blackwell confronted her on the obvious jealousy she was feeling, that pushed Shepherd to work harder as her sister had done.

And she did. And she hasn’t slowed down yet.

Her first career was at Western Electric from which she retired after 29 years. She then worked for a Beauty Mart for 10 years, following which she served as secretary at City Springs Elementary for another 11 years.

But this is her niche.

And she serenades her husband every morning before she leaves for her walk.

He wishes she wouldn’t.

Her favorite ring tone is the theme from Rocky.

“I really want to meet Sylvester Stallone. I was so inspired by that movie and it gives me such energy.

The only other person she really wants to meet, aside from Stalone is first lady Michelle Obama.

“I just love her and while she works with the children, I’m working with the seniors. We’re really doing the same thing.”

She has one son, Michael and a grandson, also Michael.

Oh, and did I say, in addition to her constant workout, she sings on the choir at Union Memorial, belongs to the Flower Circle and is an actor in the Union Players.+