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Jim Owen- A fitness influencer at 78

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Aging Matters

by James P. Owen

We had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Owen; he was 70 years old when he decided it was time to get fit. Years of working in an office based environment left him feeling stiff, weak and with aches and pains- this is something many of us can relate too. A truly inspirational man, who proves it’s never too late to improve and be the best version of you.

1.) Were you active in your younger years? Did fitness have to take a backseat due to a busy lifestyle and what motivated you to get fit a later stage in your life?

I was very active in my youth; in high school I played football, baseball and basketball. But I was only average in those sports, which has been a lifelong disappointment to me. I would have given anything to excel like my brother, the star athlete in our school. But in truth, I was slow and awkward, so I got into lifting weights instead, which I enjoyed. Back then I associated fitness with bulking up. I got up to 205 pounds, but it didn’t make me any better at organized sports. If anything, it made me slower, so that was the end of my sports career.

After graduating from college I was so preoccupied with building a career that for 30 years I had no exercise program at all. When I was about 50, I started running every weekend in the hills of Colorado, and found it exhilarating. But I was stupid and didn’t stretch at all, so it didn’t take long before my knees were shot.

Turning back to weight lifting, I set up a gym at home and hired a bodybuilder to help me train. He had me bench-pressing 200 pounds when I felt a searing pain shoot down my spine. He told me to “work through the pain,” but I couldn’t do it. My back was killing me…my whole body rebelled!

After that, I focused on losing weight, and got down to 180 pounds, but I looked haggard and was stiff and weak. It was clear as day that dieting alone wasn’t the answer. Things got even worse after 2006, when I began traveling the country giving talks on my book, Cowboy Ethics. Rushing to catch planes, hauling luggage, sitting for hours, eating meals on the run—it took a real toll. I felt drained all the time. I had two bum knees and a bad shoulder. Worst of all was the chronic and excruciating back pain that left me howling for relief.

What really galvanized me into action was seeing a video of myself on my 70th birthday. I was shocked! I looked like an old man as I shuffled up to the podium! I’d read that if you make it to 70, the odds are you’ll live another 15 years. If I was this much of a mess at 70, what would things be like at 80? That’s when I vowed to do whatever it took to get into shape.

 

2.) How has fitness improved your lifestyle?

The difference is like night and day! It took until my seventies, but I’ve finally found my inner athlete. Has it made up for the athletic disappointments in my younger years? Absolutely!

At 78, I’m in the best shape of my life. I have way more energy and I’m down to my ideal weight, 155 pounds. At the start I couldn’t do a single proper push-up – not one! Now I do sets of 50.  Besides doing three strength workouts a week, I walk, stretch, and go to yoga, Pilates, and movement classes. Fitness has become my way of life.  I truly enjoy working out, and my wife, Stanya, often does classes and cardio with me, which makes it fun. Fitness has also given me a new sense of purpose. Now my goal is to share what I’ve learned and help others find their own paths to fitness.

The big surprise has been the mental payoffs—and those are priceless! I have a lot more confidence, and feel like I can handle whatever challenge I take on or whatever life throws at me.

3.) In your book ‘Just Move’, you talk about the downward spiral of aging and how your body reacts as you age both physically & mentally.  Since becoming fitter, how old do you feel both physically & mentally?

I had a T-shirt made with the legend “80 Years Young.” That really sums it up! Yes, it’s aspirational, since I just turned 78. And it’s true that life can hand you a wild card at any time. But I’m convinced that being active and having a youthful outlook gives us more resilience to deal with whatever happens.

Like many older people, I used to think that life inevitably goes downhill once you hit 70 or 75. I don’t think that way anymore! Now I genuinely feel that some my best days may still lie ahead.

4.) What does aging/ growing old mean to you- has your perception of aging changed since getting into fitness?

The central message of my book is, “We all get older, but that doesn’t mean we have to get old.” We have a lot more control over the aging process than we think.  Our genes do play a role, of course. But the experts say that role is smaller than we may think—maybe just fifteen percent. For most of us, lifestyle choices are a much bigger factor. Aging is a fact of life, but to a large degree, how quickly we age is up to us.

 

5.) What is your advice to those who are in a health/exercising rut?

“Mix it up” is high on my list. Varying your physical activities is important not just to stave off boredom, but to keep challenging your body and addressing different dimensions of fitness. Core strength and muscular strength are important, but so are flexibility, balance, and conditioning.

So break out of the routine and try something different! If you do cardio on a machine, think about things you can do outdoors, like bicycling or kayaking.  If you do strength training in a gym, explore a different approach, like Pilates. You could do a couple of sessions with a trainer, or find a buddy to work out with. Open your mind to things you might enjoy, or think about exercising in a group. Being part of a fitness community is really energizing.

6.) What has been the highlight of your health journey so far?

Three years ago, when I was 75, I went to see my primary care doctor, a top internist trained at the Mayo Clinic, to review my annual battery of tests. He exclaimed, “You are in fabulous shape, especially for someone who’s 65.” “But doc,” I replied, I’m 75!”

He checked his records and said, “I’m blown away! Based on every test we’ve done, you’re in the top one percent of sixty-five-year-olds.” When it comes to fitness, it’s what’s going on inside your body that really counts. So I was thrilled to hear an M.D. say that my body is far younger than my chronological age. It validated everything I’d been doing.

7.) How can busy/full-time workers make time for exercising and why is it important for them to do so?

Consistency is absolutely key, both to getting fit and to avoiding injuries. The good news is that even 10 or 15 minutes of regular, moderate exercise is beneficial; it doesn’t have to be a marathon. If you have only a short time, you can turn up the intensity a little – walk up a hill or some stairs, if your health permits. You can also break your exercise into bite-sized sessions at different points of your day. And don’t forget there are plenty of stretches and movements, like squats and lunges, you can do right at your desk. The important thing is to keep moving, even if it’s not formal “exercise.”

If you work at a desk, I’d also advise that you do whatever you can to avoid hours of sitting. Not only is that bad for your metabolism, it also leads to tight muscles, back problems, and poor posture. So be sure to get up and move around every 20 minutes or so. A standing desk can help.

 

8.) How can fitness help tackle age related health issues? What has changed drastically health wise for you?

We have mountains of scientific data showing that being fit substantially reduces your risks of serious chronic disease. It turns out that the big killers, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, are all to some degree lifestyle-related—and thus at least partly preventable. It’s astonishing to learn that an estimated 86 percent of the more than $3 trillion we spend on health care each year is due to those chronic diseases. So any preventive strategies we can use to lower their incidence will save both money and lives.

This is not to say that living an active life guarantees perfect health. If only that were true! But lifestyle choices remain the one factor that’s totally in our control.

As I learned first-hand, fitness can also do a lot to ease or eliminate everyday aches and pains—and that can help people cut down on pharmaceuticals and their side effects. We need to do anything we can to make a dent in epidemic of opioid use! Being active can also help alleviate depression, which is so debilitating and seems increasingly common among the older population. Some studies have shown exercise to be as effective as antidepressant drugs.

9.) ‘Just Move’ mentions that the over 55 age range makes up one-fourth of the 41 million gym members in the US and is the fastest growing membership. Why do you think this is growing so rapidly?

I’d say there are several reasons. It’s partly because baby boomers are such a big population cohort, and we’re retiring at the rate of more than 10,000 a day. That gives us more time to focus on health. I think it’s also because American culture has become so youth-oriented.  My generation was the one that spearheaded youth culture. We don’t like thinking of ourselves as old and decrepit!

At the same time, we see today’s young people being much more active and fitness-oriented than we were at that age. When I was in high school, it was all about football and basketball, and only the athletes and cheerleaders were in training.  Now there are many choices, and fitness offers something for everyone.

 

10.) How important is diet & nutrition to your health regime?

I believe in taking a holistic approach to aging well, and nutrition is right up there with exercise! I don’t think it’s possible to be truly fit if your nutrition is poor. You can’t build muscle or endurance if you don’t give your body the right building blocks. And you certainly can’t lose weight through exercise alone. There aren’t enough hours in the day to burn all those calories! There’s an old saying in the fitness industry, “Abs are made in the kitchen.”

Let’s not forget hydration, which is also an important part of the equation. My recent bout with kidney stones was a powerful reminder to drink plenty of water throughout the day.

11.) Is there a specific diet that you follow? And do you take any supplements to support your work outs?

I’m not a follower of paleo, keto, Atkins, or any celebrity or fad diet. I do try to eat “clean,” which means eating a good amount of high-quality protein, lots of fruits and vegetables, and limited carbs. I also stay away from junk food and sweets, though I do eat a piece of dark chocolate now and then. I’ve always enjoyed good wine, which does have some health benefits. But I gave it up to reduce inflammation, and I do feel better.

To me, it’s more about moderation and portion control than about rigidly controlling what I eat. I want to enjoy my food!

As for supplements, I only take two my doctor recommended, vitamin D3 and fish oil. Other than that, I rely on good food for the nutrients I need.

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For more information on Jim & his book Just Move head over to his website here:http://bit.ly/JustMoveBook

James P. Owen is an inspirational author and speaker. His latest book is Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50 (National Geographic, 2017), which the Wall Street Journal named one of the year’s best books about healthy aging.  He is also the author of Cowboy Ethics. His current project is producing a half-hour documentary film, The Art of Aging Well. He can be reached via his website, justmoveforlife.com, or @justmovebook on Facebook and Twitter.