Debra Atkinson of ‘Flipping 50’: “Stimulating your brain by learning something new is like a workout”

Stimulating your brain by learning something new is like a workout. Your brain is this set of electrical outlets and plugs. Whenever you learn something new you plug another one in, improving your ability not just to know more but to process more information. The brain needs the same kind of overload your biceps do, […]

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Stimulating your brain by learning something new is like a workout. Your brain is this set of electrical outlets and plugs. Whenever you learn something new you plug another one in, improving your ability not just to know more but to process more information. The brain needs the same kind of overload your biceps do, especially as we age. Don’t retire, rewire. Ask, what’s next? What do I want to learn and how do I want to get my mental stimulation now? Get new information and do it actively instead of passively. Take notes. Tell what you learned to someone else.

Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?

As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debra Atkinson. Debra Atkinson has helped more than 170,000 women “flip” their second half with energy and vitality as the founder and CEO of Flipping 50. She’s the bestselling author of You Still Got It, Girl: The After 50 Fitness Formula for Women; and Hot, Not Bothered. Debra hosts Flipping 50 TV — an internet broadcast and the Flipping 50 podcast — an AARP top podcast for adults 50+ with over 1 million downloads. Her TEDx talk is Everything Women in Menopause Learned About Exercise May Be a Lie.

She’s creator of the first and only hormone balancing fitness membership exclusively for women in menopause and the Flipping 50 Fitness Specialist training for personal trainers and health coaches. Over a 37-year career she has been an internationally known fitness presenter, Subject Matter Expert for the American Council on Aging and is a prior Senior Lecturer in Kinesiology at Iowa State University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I feel as if I had a Norman Rockwell childhood growing up in a small town in the middle of the Midwest. My parents were older than most of my friend’s parents and very conservative. My stepfather was a tough act to follow, always doing the right thing, respected by everyone who knew him. Those roots gave me the moral GPS I follow today. I was the youngest of four, so I had a lot of role models. Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I think I was doing research about how to serve the people I serve now long before I realized it.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I was inspired by a combination of people. At a time when I was uncertain my original career path of graphic design was the right choice for me, I had some amazing instructors in Kinesiology at Iowa State University. I had been working at a health club over my college summer vacation and was inspired by some fitness instructors who then ultimately trained and hired me. I ended up switching my major mid-sophomore year. I wanted to give people that feeling I’d been given, not just the physical fitness, but the feeling everything in their life was better, they were a better partner, parent, boss or employee, when they were physically active. Jane Fonda most likely had a big impact on my very early entry into teaching fitness and understanding the value of cueing, and conversation, and leadership. I look at her now too… she’s still leading at 83 and recruiting others to have a voice for the future of this planet.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My grandmother was always encouraging me and providing me opportunities to be creative. Since as far back as I can remember I spend two weeks every summer with her. I loved to draw and filled notebooks with sketches day after day. She told me if I kept it up that I could be the yearbook editor, long before I ever knew what that was, and I was. She’d supply me with art materials and crafts. I think the time to explore and create things, to draw and build fostered more than a love for drawing and art. I think that business is like that too. You’re creating someone that wasn’t there before. And most of all having someone, someone in addition to your parents, who believes in you and makes you feel as if you can do anything is priceless.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Back in the 80s when my fitness career began, jobs were limited to first becoming a fitness instructor. That involved a literal tryout — teaching for the owner or manager in front of a live class. In my first ever tryout I tripped. Went down. Thankfully, I popped back up, recovered, managed to laugh at myself and not miss a beat, and got the job!

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

This is a hard question! I’ve read dozens of amazing and helpful business and habit books. I love several that fit in those categories and I have a library full of them. But the one that got me really inspired to learn as much as I could about how to teach fitness was Covert Bailey’s Fat to Fit. It was the right message, the right time, and it inspired me to find ways to take important scientific information and relay it in a way that it made sense to an audience who needed it, so that they wanted it.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. — Henry Ford

Placebo effect has been proven many times over. A big part of what I perceive my job to be is changing expectations about aging. In order for someone to exercise or change their lifestyle in a way that will bring about physical, mental, and emotional well-being they first have to believe that what they’re doing will make a difference and see the possibilities. Even if they just believe a fraction more than they don’t believe, that’s enough.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am continuing to grow the Flipping 50 membership and the Flipping 50 Fitness Specialist so there are more trainers, more health coaches, and more options for women who are not willing to settle in their second half. This is truly a legacy. Both the women in it for their health, and the trainers & coaches serving them are true “influencers.” A woman in midlife influences 3 generations. If she takes care of herself, we’re not just changing her story. We’re changing history.

Women spend up to 50% of their lives in post-menopause. With the wisdom of decades and skills to share and more influence over health than anyone in the world, women in midlife should not feel invisible. They should feel invincible.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Three habits that lead to optimum mental wellness that I swear by are journaling (or talking when you’ve got a good listener), learning something new, and exercise.

Talking through what’s happening in your life can help you process it. Someone else’s perspective helps us realize there are many ways to frame anything. You can do this with a good friend, or a coach, or a therapist. The act of doing that can help you let go of things you otherwise might ruminate on for years that could affect every decision you make. Talking through a romantic relationship with a friend helped me reframe the way I saw it — and myself. It didn’t make ending it less painful but made it clear that I deserved so much better.

Stimulating your brain by learning something new is like a workout. Your brain is this set of electrical outlets and plugs. Whenever you learn something new you plug another one in, improving your ability not just to know more but to process more information. The brain needs the same kind of overload your biceps do, especially as we age. Don’t retire, rewire. Ask, what’s next? What do I want to learn and how do I want to get my mental stimulation now? Get new information and do it actively instead of passively. Take notes. Tell what you learned to someone else.

Exercise. Of course, as a fitness professional I can tie any dimension of wellness to exercise! Just watch me! The importance of corporate wellness programs may have started partially out of desire to reduce insurance claims and premiums. However, what happens when we exercise is that we become more productive (get more done in less time and with fewer errors). We improve our problem-solving skills and become more creative. And at the end of the day employees who exercise during the workday have more job satisfaction.

If you’re new to exercise, you’re easily combining habits of learning and exercise as you learn about the exercises, or the order, or frequency you should do them. As you learn various movements in a dance or boxing, you’re also going to “train your brain.” It’s not unusual for clients to discuss their lives during fitness sessions with a personal trainer. Therefore, a single personal training session can support multiple dimensions of wellness.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

I have a simple yoga flow practice. At times in my life, I’ve been able to do 30–45 minutes daily and some days I have time for 5 minutes. I have found it’s the ritual of doing it, not a specific type of practice or even the duration of it that is beneficial. It’s the association with tuning inward rather than outward. It’s the reminder to breath in and breath out. The benefits can be enjoyed in minutes and need not be a class or a specific set of poses or sequence. I also remind myself when a physical practice can’t happen, a few deep breathes in the mindfulness of yoga will provide nearly the same benefit as a physical practice. The muscles around my neck, shoulders, eyes and jaw relax. Cortisol levels improve and your vagus nerve is stimulated which turns on your parasympathetic nervous system. The simple act of deep breathing before meals can increase your ability to digest your food.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

The big three needle movers for physical wellness are movement, sleep, and nutrition. Even if you exercise, you need to move more. Mistakenly, many people have been conditioned to think “exercise” for 30 or 60 minutes is the goal. Studies show that movement, just Non-Exercise-Activity-Time (called N.E.A.T.) is more closely related to risk of obesity than exercise. So, though we need exercise in our contemporary sedentary lives, the purpose of it is to do just enough so you want to naturally be more active all day. That is the secret to weight control and longevity. Jennifer is a 67-year-old client who was exercising 2–4 hours a day, eating fewer than 1000 calories a day when we met. Fast forward to today, and she exercises 5 days a week for less than 45 minutes and eats twice as much. She’s taken up golf and hikes in the woods. She’s reached 100lb weight loss during the pandemic moving more but exercising less.

We have to prioritize sleep. I hate reading ways to “hack sleep” so you can sleep less. Instead, we need to learn how to sleep better and value it. For many women, especially those I work with in midlife, sleep is elusive. There are at least 20 things you can do to improve your sleep though, no matter who you are. A private client had been an insomniac for decades due to self-inflicted habits and lack of awareness of the importance of sleep. As a result, she was unable to make progress toward her health and fitness goals even though she was doing everything else correctly. Now in her sixties, after decades of dealing with insomnia, she’s sleeping longer and deeper than ever and has lost a significant amount of weight.

We have to eat well. This involves two steps. The older you are the more you need to reexamine what you were taught is “healthy” and identify your best foods now. Both food and exercise are medicine. You must identify the right type and timing of food for you now. You wouldn’t take someone else’s prescription medication, now would you? But a lot of people are blindly following a diet or an exercise program not designed for them. The old calorie-in-calorie-out formula ignores the fact that hormones control your body’s preference to store or burn fat. Clients often begin telling me their story like this, “I barely eat and I exercise all the time and I still can’t lose weight.” They don’t realize they’re telling me the exact reason why they can’t lose weight. When you eat less you message your body to burn less. Your body is stressed by both eating too little and by exercising. I tell clients this is like one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator. Your metabolism comes to a halt.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

Healthy eating is paramount to reaching optimal health, fitness, and performance. We tend to associate healthy eating with rigidity and deprivation. Most people don’t even know how good they could feel. I think we get dietary change all wrong.

First of all, food is emotional. It starts that way from the moment we’re born. We’ve historically tried to approach changes in eating with a scientific solution. That solution was all about deprivation. Already we’re doomed to failure. Then we apply judgment to prior failures, because inevitably diets fail.

When you start a diet there is usually a lot of focus on what you can’t have. By human nature, that tends to be the only thing we can think about. When we overuse calorie restriction and cut out foods we love or find comfort in, few ever get permanent changes with that diet mentality.

Fortunately, there are so many ways to eliminate less healthy foods with food “flips.” (In my world it’s all about flipping one food for another!) Want pizza, or bread, or pasta? There are ways to make them. Want creamy dressings and sauces? You can have them too.

Keep the focus on what you can have, rather than what you can’t. With my clients instead of listing things they’re quitting or eliminating, we list the things they’re having instead. We’re actually adding things we do want them to eat, and to their surprise they lose cravings for the other things.

I like to begin by substituting something people are already doing with small steps to improve the ingredients, or type and timing of food. Clients who get the best results usually stop calorie counting in exchange for making calories count.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

The three habits I rely on personally and share with clients are exercise, talking — with humor if possible, and sunshine.

An exercise habit almost always starts with a physical motive but secretly as a fitness professional my goal is to have someone become co-dependent on exercise. They come for the physical change and stay for the way it makes them feel. Women who exercise regularly constantly tell me that exercise is the way they negate stress. So much so that they’re reluctant to try anything new they fear might lead to injury because it’s the number one way they deal with stress. Don’t hurt me, are the first three little words an older adult client will say to her trainer.

Talk through a problem with a good listener and if you can laugh about it even better. Both enhance your ability to cope with the it. When I’m talking to a friend and we openly acknowledge that the rest of the world is crazy — everyone but us of course, it’s ridiculous. And that’s the point. It can keep a heavy situation light and feel like someone is in your corner. Sometimes that’s all you need to know: you’re not alone and it will be alright.

For women specifically, combining all three of these habits, for instance going for a walk outdoors with a friend, can have a powerful effect on serotonin levels. It improves mood and can have therapeutic effects on women with depression. Exercise alone has been shown to have better results than either cognitive therapies or medications — on depression and anxiety — without negative side effects. The combination of these three habits is a trilogy for emotional wellness. Its free and all the side effects are positive.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

A smile for any reason tells the brain there’s humor and that releases chemicals that boost your immunity and decrease depression. A smile is the ultimate example of placebo effect. You can fake it. Your brain doesn’t know.

It boosts your mood and anyone’s mood who sees you. Physiologically you can’t smile and be stressed. All of the feel-good hormones and transmitters (serotonin and dopamine) that kick in with exercise also kick in with a smile. That’s a pretty good ROI. There’s no downside to smiling.

When I’m running or cycling, I often find myself smiling. I’ve had people I don’t even know say, you’re always smiling. I know that’s not true, but there is always something to smile about. I like to think about those things. It’s also contagious. When we see a smiling face it’s hard not to smile yourself. That’s a pretty good virus to spread. I find that’s been a tough thing during the pandemic. No matter what else you think about masks, they do hide smiles.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Three habits that are important for optimum spiritual wellness for me are regular exercise, expressing gratitude, and exploring to change my perspective.

I can sound like a broken record promoting exercise. Selfishly this is so very true for me, but it’s also true for many others even if they don’t quite put their finger on it. There’s no one form of exercise that has the ability to enhance spirituality but there’s a component of enjoying it or enjoying the discipline of it. For some it’s yoga. For others it’s a run or a hike or even a very challenging workout. Clients have said to me a long run feels “cleansing.” Decades ago, my stepfather’s church was a golf course. Exercise modes that enhance spirituality often have in common the opportunity for the mind to wonder. That means exercise alone and unplugged can be a better way to go inward than allowing the words of a podcast or music lyrics to hi-jack your thoughts and emotions.

A gratitude practice, whether you write down things you’re grateful for in a journal or you refer to them as blessings during quite time, can enhance your spiritual wellness. Sometimes if I’ve already turned out the lights and forgot to write in a journal, I’ll just mentally list 3 things that I am grateful for that day. By focusing both at the beginning and end of the day on things I’m grateful for, it’s a form of prayer for me.

Exploring places you’ve never been whether hiking on a new trail or traveling to a new location, even sitting in a different spot in your home to journal can give you a different perspective and opportunity to be more present. I think presence is a key for spirituality. We get very used to thinking of ourselves the way we’ve always thought of ourselves. Getting out of your typical environment and your typical habits can help you identify your purpose because we look for the way that we fit. Purpose is foundational to spirituality.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

The benefit of “forest bathing” is well documented. In Asian countries it’s strongly recommended. We’re slower to catch on in the U.S. but I’m a strong advocate for kicking the “dreadmill” to the curb and getting outdoors. Being outdoors, and especially doing your exercise there when possible, there’s a significant improvement in cortisol reduction from the very same movement. From city streets and sidewalks to green space there’s significantly more. Whichever step you can take, do. There’s proof that even having an image of nature on your computer screen supports well-being.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would inspire a movement for women’s pro-aging. There is no more powerful health influencer in the world than a midlife woman. Flipping 50 is a movement founded in changing our expectations about aging and encouraging midlife women to see that their selfcare is pivotal for the health of 3 generations. We need to relearn what selfcare in these dimensions of wellness is, and then encourage and support it. We need to see promotions that stop focusing just on weight loss, and toning thighs, and arms, and are instead about getting stronger physically to have a greater impact on the world in every other way.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I love that there are more and more women-supporting-women investors — and who better to acknowledge the need and opportunity for positive impact? Anu Bhardwaj founder of Women Investing in Women and Elizabeth Galbut, SoGal Ventures are two.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m at and on social media you’ll find us at @flipping50tv or Debra Atkinson on Linkedin

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