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Forget second acts. Jim Owen, who turns 80 on Oct. 20, is capitalizing on his third. His new documentary film, “The Art of Aging Well,” is the culmination of what he describes as his purpose and his legacy: Inspiring older adults to become healthier and more active.
“We’re experiencing a health care crisis that no one talks about, and it’s not the second wave of the pandemic: We are a nation of couch potatoes, and it’s literally killing us,” says Owen, who lives in San Diego.
The film ran on Wyoming PBS, Rocky Mountain PBS and will be available to PBS member stations through the National Educational Telecommunications Association starting Oct. 31.
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers predicted that nearly half of Americans will be obese by 2030. Owen adds that health experts have long known that being physically fit substantially reduces the risk of serious chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and most of us have much more control over the aging process than we think.
Owen firmly believes that how we age is largely up to us: While we can’t help getting older, we don’t have to get old.
Driven to succeed
Growing up in Lexington, Ky., Owen played recreational football, basketball and baseball, and lifted weights, too, all in the shadow of his older brother, a star athlete. But after graduating from college, he spent the next 30-plus years doing no exercise at all as he built a successful investment career on Wall Street, including publishing the bestselling book, The Prudent Investor’s Guide to Hedge Funds.
“I got lucky; I was blessed and had a very rewarding career. But anyone can make money; it’s much harder to make a difference,” says Owen, who reinvented himself in 2003 as a motivational speaker and author of “Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn From the Code of the West.”
“I don’t wear a cowboy hat and I’m kind of afraid of horses,” he admits. “But to me, the mythical cowboy was a construct: Every culture needs heroes, and when I grew up, cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were mine.”
Owen’s advice about business and life sparked a movement, leading to two subsequent “Cowboy Ethics” business books, the launch of the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership nonprofit and hundreds of speaking engagements a year. It was while he crisscrossed the country on a whirlwind speaking tour in 2006 that Owen realized how weak, stiff, achy and tired he felt all the time.
The tipping point came when Owen watched a video of himself on his 70th birthday, looking haggard and pale. He had read that if you live to age 70, you’d likely live another 15 years. With no desire to spend those years in pain with no energy, he vowed to get in shape.
His body at 75: 10 years younger than his age
Applying the same determination that worked during his Wall Street days, Owen slowly took control of his health, beginning with daily 10-minute walks. Working with a professional trainer, he added on strength-building exercises and began eating healthier.
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Many older adults worry they’ll get hurt by starting an exercise plan, and Owen discovered there are no shortcuts. He had briefly taken up running at 50 and injured both knees. After switching to weightlifting, he bench-pressed too much weight and was left with searing lower back pain that kept him up at night.
“The older you are, the more safety has to be the number one priority, and that means listening to your body,” says Owen, noting there’s a fine line between getting out of your comfort zone, progressing and going overboard.
“Don’t get overly ambitious, particularly if you’re older. Just chip away at it, and all the sudden you’ll look back and say, ‘I can’t believe how far I’ve come,’” he says
Owen’s persistence was validated when, at 75, his primary care physician pronounced him in excellent shape for a 65-year-old. His body was now a decade younger than his actual age.
“Exercise has enlarged my view of the world. Getting fit is incredibly empowering: If someone says, ‘You’ll never do this’, I say, ‘Watch me.’ I’m not that coordinated, so if I can do it, anybody can do it,” Owen says.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable
Most people think that the hard work and subsequent payoff from regular exercise is physical. But for Owen, the mental aspect has been the most daunting and the most rewarding.
“I’d guess that 80% of people who go to the gym are going because somebody — their doctor or their spouse — told them to. That’s not motivational, so you do it in a halfhearted way,” he explains. “My motivation was getting rid of aches and pains, but the life-transforming thing came after five years, when I changed my mind-set from working out to training. That’s really when you make big strides. Exercise has really boosted my confidence.”
In addition to three strength workouts a week, Owen walks, stretches and does yoga, Pilates and movement classes, often alongside his wife Stanya. He is pain-free, and weighs less than he did in high school.
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“I work on my weaknesses, not my strengths. Most people only work on their strengths; you see guys doing bicep curls or tricep extensions. You don’t need to do that stuff. Try doing push-ups. I hate push-ups, but that’s why you should do them. When I started, it took almost a week before I could do one. Today, I can do 50; I’m in the best shape of my life.”
A movement takes shape
Breaking a sweat inspired Owen to raise awareness about the power of being physically active.
His 2017 book “Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50″ — named one of the year’s best books on healthy aging by The Wall Street Journal — chronicled his new-found passion for healthy living and provided a step-by-step program that could be adapted to any level of ability.
“I know it sounds corny, but I strive to become a role model,” Owen says. “Not a week goes by where I don’t get emails or phone calls from people who say, ‘Mr. Owen, you’ve changed my life,’ or ‘You changed my father or mother’s life.’ It’s fascinating to me, because there’s no lack of information out there, but that’s not the answer. Both my book and the documentary are a call to action.”
A wellness strategy
Produced by Owen and directed by Jim Havey, “The Art of Aging Well” emphasizes that it’s never too late or too difficult to become healthier. Over the past two years, Owen’s team gathered powerful success stories of individuals who overcame obstacles to find health through exercise later in life.
The 30-minute film also features practical tips and perspectives from leading wellness experts across the country who believe prevention should be our primary health care strategy.
“Everybody we talked to wanted to be part of this to share their experience, and I want these stories to change the world,” says Owen, who plans to produce more films about healthy aging. “This is not a business for me; I wouldn’t work this hard for money. It’s just really fun.”
The pandemic has brought a sense of urgency to Owen’s work, and he hopes that living in the COVID-19-era has been a wake-up call to many older adults as they realize they can reduce the risks to their health.
He’s convinced that staying active and having a positive, youthful attitude builds up resilience to face any health crisis, should it present itself.
“I want to be lean, and it’s not vanity,” Owen says. “If I do get hit with COVID-19, a stroke or a heart attack, I believe I’ve done everything I can do to weather it.”
Owen continues to take on big challenges, and says healthy living has given him a sense of purpose that motivates him every day.
“Many people my age sort of give up on life; I don’t,” he says. “I used to think that life inevitably goes downhill once you hit 70 or 75. Now, I feel my best days may still lie ahead.”