Community//

Jim Owen: “Your obstacles can work in your favor”

It’s no exaggeration to say our way of life is killing us. The average American spends somewhere between eleven and thirteen hours a day in a chair; we don’t even get up to change the channel anymore. Forty percent of us are not just overweight, but obese. And seven out of ten Americans over the […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

It’s no exaggeration to say our way of life is killing us. The average American spends somewhere between eleven and thirteen hours a day in a chair; we don’t even get up to change the channel anymore. Forty percent of us are not just overweight, but obese. And seven out of ten Americans over the age of 50 have at least one serious chronic health condition, such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes, or cancer, and half are dealing with more than one, according to the CDC.

The costs to our society, not to mention our families, are enormous. Managing chronic diseases eats up something like eighty percent of our healthcare spending. That’s one reason why we spend more on health care than any other developed nation, but rank at the bottom in outcomes. As our population ages, things could get even worse.

So, what can we do about it? These chronic diseases all have links to lifestyle, which means that to some degree, they are preventable. Preventing diseases, instead of just treating them, is the direction our health care model and our culture need to go. This is the big idea that drives everything I’m doing.


As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing James P. Owen, an inspirational author, speaker and film producer. His current project is producing a half-hour documentary film, The Art of Aging Well. He is also the author of 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, and of the best-seller Cowboy Ethics.


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I don’t know why, but the older I get, the more I like taking on big challenges.

After a long, rewarding career in the investment business, at age 60, I set the goal of writing a best-selling book. The result was Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, which sold 150,000 copies. That led to an encore career as an author, inspirational speaker and change-maker.

By the time I turned 70, life on the lecture circuit was taking a heavy toll on my body. I was a physical mess and severe lower back pain was ruining my life. I resolved to get fit, no matter what, and poured all my determination and energy into that.

Five years later, I was in the best shape of my life. I also realized others my age could benefit from the things I learned along the way. I spent two years researching and writing Just Move!, a fitness guide for people over 50, which was published by National Geographic in 2017.

Making a documentary film on healthy aging was a natural next step. Little did I know that producing The Art of Aging Well would be the biggest challenge of my life. By the time I realized how hard it is to get a distribution deal these days, the film had already been completed.

But I’ve always believed in making your own luck, and that philosophy paid off again. A chance connection helped me break through to someone at PBS who saw something special in what we created. The upshot is, the film will begin airing on two PBS stations this September with wider distribution in November. And who knows where we can go from there? Perhaps a multi-year docu-series with national sponsors?

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

Last November, my beautiful wife of fifty-two years and I were on The Today Show to pitch my book, Just Move!, and discuss my upcoming documentary film. The production crew came down from New York and spent a good two-and-a-half-hours filming Stanya and me in our Austin apartment.

At one point, the producer turned to my petite, genteel wife, and asked, “We know why Jim took up fitness. What got you started?”

Stanya looked right into the camera and said in her soft southern lilt, “A friend of mine told me, ‘I saw Jim working out today. I know he used to be a couch potato. But now, he’s gone from being a spud…to a stud.’ When I heard that, well, I figured I’d better start working out myself if I wanted to keep him around.” The producer laughed so hard, she literally fell out of her chair!

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

One of the experts we interviewed for the film was Dr. Mike Roizen, who is Chief Wellness Officer Emeritus at the Cleveland Clinic and one of the authors of the best-selling YOU book series. He’s a champion of preventive health care and incredibly charismatic on camera. The instant our camera was rolling, he projected energy, enthusiasm and a total mastery of his subject.

I was in awe, and just assumed he was a naturally gifted communicator. But then he told me the story of his first appearance on Oprah’s show. He was nervous, to say the least, especially since there was a live audience — I mean, who wouldn’t be? He figured it would all be over in a couple of minutes, but Oprah kept peppering him with questions.

When the commercial break came, he breathed a sigh of relief, until the producer came over and angrily berated him for “ruining the show” with his sweating and stammering. “It’s ratings week, and if Oprah’s aren’t good, it’s going to be your fault. So get it together,” the producer demanded.

Somehow, Dr. Mike did, and he said that tongue-lashing led him to a breakthrough. He learned how to find that inner source of focus and energy and project it to an audience. Having done enough TV appearances to know what a high-wire act that is, I took a lot of inspiration and encouragement from his story, and I think of it whenever I’m about to step in front of a camera.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now I’m totally focused on The Art of Aging Well. It’s my passion project, because it’s a way to scale my outreach and connect with people across the country. You could say it’s my version of a public health campaign, but with a different angle.

It’s clear to me that information alone is not enough to get us to change our lifestyles. I mean, who doesn’t know that we need to get regular exercise and eat right if we want to be healthy? We’ve heard it a hundred times, but a lot of us are still eating too much and moving too little.

The point is, we can’t browbeat people into adopting healthier habits. We’ve got to inspire them in ways that hit home on a personal and emotional level. Making a film was the best way I could think of to do that.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I’m old enough to have seen any number of heroes rise and fall in popularity as history is revised. Truthfully, the people who inspire me most are the ones you’ll never see immortalized in a statue. They’re what I call everyday heroes, and you can find them all across America.

A hero doesn’t have to be someone who rescues a child from a burning building or finds a cure for a deadly disease. It could be a single mom who’s working two jobs, but always finds time to help with homework. Or someone who puts a career on hold to care for an aging parent. Or the businessman who cuts his own salary to keep from laying off loyal workers. If there’s one thing our world needs more of, it’s people like that.

My Dad was one of those quiet heroes. He wasn’t rich or famous; he was a dentist in Lexington, Kentucky. But he was a man with unshakeable principles — the kind of person you’d want to have as a neighbor or friend. Whenever he walked into the room, everyone stood up a little bit straighter. He had the kind of presence that made us all want to reach higher and be a better person. He was the kind of man I still aspire to be.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

Helping older adults realize their power to live longer and better isn’t just a “feel good” kind of thing. It’s addressing an fast-emerging public health crisis. That’s even more true now that we know older adults with underlying conditions are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

It’s no exaggeration to say our way of life is killing us. The average American spends somewhere between eleven and thirteen hours a day in a chair; we don’t even get up to change the channel anymore. Forty percent of us are not just overweight, but obese. And seven out of ten Americans over the age of 50 have at least one serious chronic health condition, such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes, or cancer, and half are dealing with more than one, according to the CDC.

The costs to our society, not to mention our families, are enormous. Managing chronic diseases eats up something like eighty percent of our healthcare spending. That’s one reason why we spend more on health care than any other developed nation, but rank at the bottom in outcomes. As our population ages, things could get even worse.

So, what can we do about it? These chronic diseases all have links to lifestyle, which means that to some degree, they are preventable. Preventing diseases, instead of just treating them, is the direction our health care model and our culture need to go. This is the big idea that drives everything I’m doing.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Back when I first resolved to get fit, I realized I had no clue what to do or how to get started. I had tried running and old-school bodybuilding in the past, and just ended up getting injured. I didn’t want to make that mistake again.

So I dived into the huge tide of fitness books, videos and articles out there. There was a ton of information, but almost none of it seemed right for a 70-year-old novice like me. I thought, “Someone should write a book about getting fit when you’re older.” My next thought was, “Why not me?”

I started making notes for the book the next day. Little did I know I was beginning a whole new chapter in my life.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Telling stories of physical and emotional transformation was the main reason I wanted to make The Art of Aging Well. The first person we meet in the film is a cancer survivor who felt drained and exhausted after chemotherapy, and figured that’s how the rest of her life was going to be. Although she’d always been one who “hates to exercise,” she discovered that walking and strength training restored the energy she thought was lost for good. On camera, she’s so happy and vibrant, she practically glows!

The film ends with an 86-year-old woman whose son persuades her to try aquatic exercise rather than yet another medication for her chronic pain. She, too, is astonished and delighted by how much better she feels, declaring “no more doctors, no more pills.” In between are several other stories of people who learn the power of healthy living. My hope is that people who watch the film will take action and generate more success stories.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

As individuals, we can choose a healthy lifestyle and model that for those around us. Research shows that, for better or worse, healthy behaviors are contagious. When we see family members and friends being physically active and eating nutritious foods, it influences us on both a conscious and a subconscious level. I would love to see some celebrities take up this cause and become advocates of healthy living.

As a society, we can support healthy aging by rejecting ageism as a myth and a form of discrimination. We constantly get the message that older adults are slow, weak and irrelevant. Too many of us take that image to heart, which only holds us back from doing things we really could. It’s high time that we consciously reject our culture’s worship of youth and embrace the potential of our later years.

Government and nonprofits can help by supporting healthier communities. If we’re going to shift away from a sedentary, car-centered way of life, we need more walking and bike trails, more exercise programs for seniors, more public transit and more walkable shopping districts.

I’d also call on the fitness industry to rethink its offerings and its marketing. Images of bulging muscles and slim, toned bodies may draw twenty- or thirty-somethings, but they’re off-putting to older folks who mainly want to stay mobile and pain-free. By 2030, people over 60 will be the largest consumer market in the nation, so this is both a revenue opportunity and a challenge for the industry.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

First, Don’t be surprised when people roll their eyes at your ambitions. It was still happening to me as I was planning my current film project. I’m not saying people didn’t want me to succeed — only that they weren’t convinced I could. But that didn’t really faze me. If anything, it was energizing.

This leads to my second point: Your obstacles can work in your favor. Having hurdles to overcome can be the best thing to fuel your motivation. In my case, wanting to prove the skeptics wrong only made me even more determined to get my film completed and distributed.

Number three: There’s a thin line between success and failure. You can put in a full day’s work, give it a hundred percent, and it still may not be enough. It may take a hundred-and-ten-percent effort to reach your goal. That extra ten percent — completing one more task, or making one more phone call — can make all the difference.

Fourth, Attitude is everything. Being smart will only take you so far. I’d much rather hire someone who’s inexperienced, but eager to help and learn, than someone who’s negative and difficult, no matter how much he or she might know. Any good teacher or business owner will tell you that attitude trumps ability every single time.

Finally, Pick the right collaborators. When it comes to the creative process, I’m a big believer in collaboration. What I bring to the table is vision and focus. But let’s face it — ideas are a dime a dozen. Success is all about execution, so I depend on other people to help me give shape to my ideas. I’m lucky to have a creative team I’ve worked with for thirty years. Its core members include Brigitte LeBlanc, a writer from the Bay Area, and Nita Alvarez, a graphic designer in L.A. We knew how to work as a remote team long before COVID made it a thing. Last, but not least, is Jim Havey, the director of The Art of Aging Well, who’s based in Denver. Jim has won three Emmys, and not just because he’s a great technician. What really sets him apart is the way he connects emotionally with an audience. Having him on the project is what made me so confident it would succeed.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Anyone can make money; it’s much harder to make a difference. I hope you also strive to be a difference, so you become a role model who inspires others to reach for the best in themselves.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Oprah, if you happen to see this, I’d love the chance to get your thoughts on how we can best encourage healthy living.

If we want to help people build healthy habits, I think we need to do a better job of marketing. Telling people it’s something you must do, or you’re somehow a lesser being, doesn’t really serve the goal. Nor does the message that wellness is a matter of buying the right products. The kind of can-do, life-affirming vision Oprah is putting forward with Weight Watchers is the direction we need to go.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Lawrence of Arabia is one of my all-time favorite movies; I’ve watched it maybe fifteen times over the years. At several points, Lawrence is told that something will or won’t happen because it’s destiny or the will of Allah. Each time, Lawrence replies “Nothing is written.” To me, that’s a reminder that things don’t “just happen.” We have more power to change our lives and circumstances — and perhaps even help change the course of history — than we may think.

How can our readers follow you online?

My current website is theartofagingwell.com. People interested in my fitness book, Just Move!, can find more about that at justmoveforlife.com. As for social media, you’ll find me @theartofagingwell on Facebook and @justmovebook on Twitter. I’m also active on LinkedIn as James P. Owen.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!


    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

    You might also like...

    Community//

    Promoting Health Can Fix Health Care

    by Ellen Moyer
    Well-Being//

    How to Overcome the Forces That Glass-Ceiling Health

    by Dr. Sandro Galea
    Daisuke Kondo/ Getty Images
    Thrive Global News//

    The Future of Health Is All About Going Upstream

    by Arianna Huffington

    Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

    Thrive Global
    People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

    - MARCUS AURELIUS

    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.