Fitness starts on the inside, so be sure to do some kind of cardiovascular activity for 30 minutes three or four times a week. But at the same time, realize that cardio isn’t enough.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Should Do to Optimize Your Wellness After Retirement” I had the pleasure of interviewing James P. Owen, 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.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
After a 35-year Wall Street career, I shifted gears in a big way when I came up with the concept of Cowboy Ethics. Inspired by the Code of the West, which every cowboy knew even though it was unwritten, Cowboy Ethics was based on the idea that everyone needs a code to live by. I was convinced that personal character could be a more powerful force for a better world than all the laws and regulations we could write.
My book, Cowboy Ethics, was published in 2004, launching my new career as an inspirational author, speaker, and social entrepreneur. I also set up a nonprofit foundation, the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, to carry out related projects. I spent the next ten years speaking to audiences all across the country, writing two more books, and generally spreading my message. Not only did Cowboy Ethics sell more than 150,000 copies, it helped spawn an ongoing grassroots movement that has engaged tens of thousands of students, parents, and businesspeople.
In 2010, I turned 70, and was feeling the physical toll of my years on the speaking and interview circuit. Worst of all was the chronic back pain that sometimes left me literally howling on the floor. I set about doing whatever it took to get in shape, and realized that the prevailing fitness culture didn’t speak to the needs of older folks like me.
It took time, and consistent, focused effort, but five years later, I was in the best shape of my life and found myself with a new mission: showing older adults how they, too, can slow down the aging process and even turn back the clock. I distilled the lessons I’d learned into a step-by-step guide, Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness after 50, which National Geographic published in 2017. I’m now working on a 30-minute documentary film that will be made available free of charge to broadcasters, government agencies and community groups everywhere. You could say I’ve morphed from a certified couch potato to a fitness crusader.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When the word started getting out about Cowboy Ethics, I had the opportunity to meet Ty Murray, arguably the world’s most famous bull rider. I’d heard that Ty decided at age three to become the best rodeo cowboy ever, and had relentlessly pursued that goal until he fulfilled it at age 28, when he won a record-breaking seventh World All-Around Champion title.
I wanted to hear more about his story, so on a blustery April day, I drove hours through a blinding rainstorm to Ty’s ranch just outside of Stephenville, Texas. As I pulled in, Ty appeared in a slicker and boots and motioned for me to follow him, saying, “The creek took down one of the fences; we’ve got a job to do.” I soon found myself in the slippery mud, bracing a fence post with my shoulder as Ty deftly worked with the barbed wire.
It wasn’t until we were warm and dry in the house that I had the chance to ask him the secret of his success. He replied with a shy half-smile, “Mom always said I was born with an extra supply of Try. ” He explained that in the cowboy nation, “try” isn’t a verb that means “make an attempt.” It’s a noun that describes the quality of giving 110 percent effort to the task at hand, with no quitting, ever.
Ty’s focus and determination were so striking that at that very moment, I resolved to make “Try” my guiding principle. He also inspired my next book, The Try, a collection of 12 real-life people who accomplished extraordinary things by virtue of their inner drive. The Try was the basis for a documentary film, and a central theme of the middle- and high-school curriculum my foundation has provided to schools and partner organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Wyoming. It just goes to show you where a conversation can lead. To this day, “All it takes…is all you’ve got” is my mantra.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I don’t know that this is exactly humorous…but I’m thinking of the time I was invited to speak at a fundraiser for a private school for the blind in Lancaster, PA. This engagement was sandwiched between several others, and I would be arriving just ahead of the event. But I wasn’t concerned because I’d had plenty of speaking experience and had an A-V presentation full of gorgeous cowboy images to help me engage the audience.
Just before I stepped out onto the stage, I looked out and saw row after row of people with dark glasses and seeing-eye canes. It turned out that sighted patrons and supporters of the school were only a fraction of the audience. In fact, three-fourths of the audience members were blind! You can believe I learned a lesson that day: always do your homework.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The person who comes to mind isn’t a colleague or business mentor, but a close friend who was our neighbor when we lived in Santa Barbara. Dick Archer was a retired insurance executive in his early seventies when he was diagnosed with cancer. His doctors told him he might live another year at best.
Not a day went by that I didn’t run into Dick somewhere in the neighborhood. His wife told us about his chemo treatments, and we could see him getting weaker as the months went by. “Hello, Dick,” I’d say, “how are you doing?” Without fail, he would respond with a big smile and the words: “Life is good. ” Not once did I ever hear a hint of a complaint or self-pity from him — not once!
As it turned out, he astonished us all, including his doctors, by going on to live another ten years. He showed me that a positive mindset really is the key to success, even — and maybe especially — when things seem stacked against you. Dick taught me that if you meet each day with a positive attitude, start from wherever you are, and do the best you can, your odds of success are high.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
As someone who started a career as an inspirational author and speaker relatively late in life, I had to learn that the work of producing a book or film is only a fraction of the effort it takes to succeed. Getting your message out there requires lots of travel punctuated by speaking engagements, media appearances, meetings, and more travel. If you want to stay healthy and sane, you have to learn how to say ‘no’ to marginal opportunities — and sometimes even turn down good opportunities if they’re sandwiched in between too many commitments. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Not everyone has what it takes to be a leader. Those with leadership ability realize it isn’t about wielding power. It’s about empowering others to find the best in themselves. Hire good people, and let them know you have confidence in their decision-making. The message is “You can do this,” but they also need to know they’ll be held accountable for the results.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In some cases, retirement can reduce health, and in others it can improve health. From your point of view or experience, what are a few of the reasons that retirement can reduce one’s health?
Retirement is often equated with “taking it easy” — in other words, sitting, which can be a menace to both physical and psychological health. People who sit for hours a day, with little or no physical activity, have significantly higher risks of premature death than those who are moderately active. A sedentary way of life is also big reason why one in four Americans are not just overweight, but obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s no wonder scientists now call sitting “the new smoking. ”
Social isolation is another health risk associated with retirement. For career-minded people, friendships and social interactions often revolve around the workplace. When that’s gone, and there’s nothing to replace it, the repercussions can be serious. These days, more of us are living alone, and an AARP study found that 42 million Americans over middle age are chronically lonely. Researchers are learning that social isolation, loneliness and depression can be as damaging to health as serious diseases.
I also see a lot of people my age fall into the trap of seeming embarrassed or almost ashamed to be over a certain age, especially if they have some physical limitations. In our youth-obsessed culture, older people are often assumed to be slow, out of touch, and irrelevant, if not useless. It’s all too easy to internalize that way of thinking without even realizing it. That can lead us to feel “this is just the way it is,” and keep us from taking the positive steps we could to be healthier and more active.
Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize their physical wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
This is the subject of my latest book, Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness after 50. As you can probably guess, its core message is “get off the couch and do something active. ” You don’t have to kill yourself. Just build some kind of consistent, moderate physical activity into your life — preferably something you enjoy, so you’ll want to keep doing it.
I have several recommendations revolving around the concept of functional fitness, which means you’re physically able to handle everyday activities without pain or strain. When you’re older, fitness isn’t about looking good in a bathing suit; your goals become more practical.
Functional fitness has multiple dimensions, so your training should be multidimensional, too:
– Fitness starts on the inside, so be sure to do some kind of cardiovascular activity for 30 minutes three or four times a week. But at the same time, realize that cardio isn’t enough.
– Put a high priority on building core strength, which provides the support structure for your entire body. Core strength is often the first thing to go as you age, and that puts you at risk for chronic back pain, injuries, and dangerous falls. Not until I started working out did I discover that a lack of core strength was the root cause of my chronic back pain. I started spending 30 minutes of every workout on exercises specifically designed to build core strength. It took time, but eventually, my back pain not only diminished, it disappeared.
– Be sure to incorporate some kind of upper and lower body strength training into your routine. A lot of people don’t realize that we start slowly, but steadily losing lean muscle around the age of 30 if we’re not doing something to rebuild it. That process accelerates around age 50. Strength training will not only help you stay functional and out of assisted living, it will teach you how to move and lift so you don’t hurt yourself doing simple chores around the house. It can also help you get rid of aches and pains.
– Don’t forget to train for balance. An estimated one in three Americans over 65 suffers a fall each year, and some don’t ever fully recover. You can build balance training into strength exercises or do simple things at home, like standing on one foot while you brush your teeth.
– Work on flexibility to keep joints mobile and counter that stiff, achy feeling that comes with age. You can do simple stretches at home or in the gym, or go to a yoga class. Try for three times a week at a minimum; daily stretching is better.
In my view, there’s no hard-and-fast formula for optimizing your wellness in retirement. When I look at people I know who are aging well, it’s clear they don’t all have the same lifestyle. Some travel constantly; others are busy with family or community projects. Some watch their diets like a hawk; others eat with gusto.
But they do have two things in common. First, they are fit enough to do all the everyday things they need to do. Secondly, they make an effort to take care of themselves in body, mind, and spirit.
When it comes to wellness, we can’t ignore the mental piece. Our thought patterns have a profound effect on our health, too. Science tells us that people who have a positive outlook, stay active, and have strong connections with family and friends are happier and live longer.
In your experience, what are 3 or 4 things that people wish someone told them before they retired?
Be prepared to live longer than you might expect. Statistics say that if you make it to the age of 70, the odds are you’ll live another 15 years. You don’t want to outlive your money, so be prudent about spending, diversify your investments, and have enough cash or liquid assets to cover emergencies.
It’s also wise to plan ahead for the day when you won’t be able to live independently. It may never come, but if it does, you’ll be very glad you took steps to be prepared.
When you’ve been used to living an active life, isolation can come more quickly than you realize. Once you’re out of the workplace, your old colleagues and friends may not call that often, and friends your age may be busy with family, health issues, and their own agendas. So make a point of reaching out to people you know and exploring opportunities to make new friends and acquaintances.
Having hobbies in retirement is good. Having a purpose is better, because it has deeper meaning and gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t have to be anything impressive or grand. It could be as simple as being a support system for a vulnerable neighbor or that special someone in a grandchild’s life.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Larry McMurtry’s great Western epic, Lonesome Dove, has probably influenced me more than any other book. To me, it is the Great American Novel because it celebrates the values that built this country — values we need now more than ever. Loyalty, honor, courage, friendship, toughness, integrity…Lonesome Dove has got them all. Because it speaks to the importance of living by a code, it also helped enrich my work on Cowboy Ethics.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would be thrilled if my work on fitness and aging well could help in some small way to swing this country’s health care system toward a model of preventing diseases, rather than simply treating them with drugs and surgeries.
Science tells us that the serious chronic diseases that plague and kill so many of us — I’m talking about high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and several forms of cancer — are all linked to lifestyle to some degree. Of course, lifestyle isn’t the only factor in those diseases; genetics and luck certainly play a role. But lifestyle choices are one factor we can control.
Shouldn’t our policymakers and our health care system be doing everything possible to support people in replacing unhealthy lifestyle habits with healthier ones? Not only would that help millions of people live longer, better lives, it could save hundreds of billions in health care costs each year.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Attitude trumps ability.”
If I didn’t believe that, I would never have set out to become fit at age 70. Not only was I out of shape, and racked with chronic back pain, I had never been athletic in my life. Even in high school, I was clumsy and uncoordinated — a perennial bench-warmer. But I resolved not to let that hold me back.
It took consistent, focused effort, but I achieved the physical transformation I was aiming for, and have learned how to sustain it. A can-do mentality was the critical thing that enabled me to stay the course and reach my goals.
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 if we tag them 🙂
If money were no object I’d jump into the auction for lunch with Warren Buffett. He’s really got the goods, meaning he’s lived an exemplary life both professionally and personally. Beyond that, he and Bill Gates started the Giving Pledge, which has spurred other billionaires to pledge more than half their wealth to causes that benefit the world; I’d love to talk to him about the projects he cares about. I also admire his humility, a trait that’s missing in so many people who’ve achieved enormous success.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
My website is justmoveforlife. com; you can also follow me @justmovebook on Facebook and on Twitter.
Thank you for all of these great insights!