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Health & Wellness

A 77-year-old Former Couch Potato Shares His Advice on Getting Functionally Fit

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On his 70th birthday, James P. Owen, a former Wall Street banker turned author, decided he was finally going to get fit.

Today, at 77, he says, “I’m in the best shape of my life.” Owen weighs less than he did in college, and he moves through his days with, he says, “more ease and fluidity” than he has in years.

In his new book Just Move: A New Approach to Fitness After 50 Owens shares how to put his fitness principles into practice. He talked to Get Old by phone from his home in Austin, Texas. The former self-described “certified couch potato,” who never misses an opportunity to move, was dancing as he chatted.

What motivated you to start your fitness journey?

Owen: For my birthday a friend had sent me a video of a speech I’d given a couple of weeks earlier about my first book Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West. I saw an old man shuffling up to the podium. My shoulders were hunched over, my body was tight because my back was killing me, my knees were shot and my right rotator cuff was frozen. I was at least 20 pounds overweight. Watching that video, I thought, that can’t be me. And, if I look this bad now, how am I going to look in 10 or 15 years?

You suggest an exercise regimen based on what’s known as functional fitness. What does that mean?

Owen: Functional fitness is the ability to carry about your everyday activities without pain or difficulty. That can be lifting up a grandchild, taking groceries out of the car, walking up a flight of stairs.

What are the elements of a functional fitness regimen?

Owen: There are five components to functional fitness.

  1. Core stability and strength: Your core includes all the muscles of your torso. That means not only your abdominals, but also your upper and lower back and glutes. A strong core supports your entire body, whether you’re standing, moving, turning or lifting. Weak core muscles contribute to back pain, trouble sitting down and getting up from a chair, stress on your joints, and more. Whole body exercises, like planks and push-ups and squats are great ways to build core strength.
  2. Flexibility is the ability to carry a movement through the entire range of motion. Lack of flexibility may lead to pain and injury. A good stretching program, which might include yoga or Pilates classes, may be important to preserving or regaining flexibility.
  3. Balance is a critical part of good fitness, though it’s often overlooked. Poor balance increases your risk of falls and that can lead to dire, or even fatal, consequences. Simple things, like standing on one foot while you brush your teeth or talk on the phone, may help build balance.
  4. Muscular strength. We begin to lose muscle mass in our 30s, but while some loss is inevitable, we can significantly reduce the loss with strength or resistance training. And by preserving muscle power you may be be preserving your independence.  Pushing or pulling some kind of load, whether that’s free weights like dumbbells, your own body weight, weight machines or exercise bands are all forms of resistance training.  A couple of sessions with a knowledgeable trainer can help you develop a regimen that will work for you.
  5. Cardiovascular endurance: To become fit or stay fit you need to challenge your cardiovascular system, which powers everything else. As long as your doctor has cleared you for vigorous physical activity, you’ll want to work up to an activity where your breathing and heart rate are elevated for at least 30 minutes, three or more times a week. The activity can be anything you enjoy—power walking, dancing, hiking, working out on a treadmill, rowing machine or elliptical at the gym. Let common sense be your guide when it comes to exertion. If you can easily carry on a conversation while you move, step up your pace. If you feel like you’re straining, quickly getting exhausted or running out of breath, ease off.

What’s your best advice for someone beginning at exercise program later in life?

Owen: Start with what you can do and make small, steady improvements from there. Seeing yourself getting stronger and more flexible is fun, satisfying and whets the appetite for new accomplishments. As always, make sure to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before beginning a new exercise program. 

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