BY Connor Dziawura
Jim Owen just wanted to get in shape.
An author, inspirational speaker and former Wall Street professional, he didn’t realize until he was 70 that years of physical inactivity and traveling public speaking had taken their toll. So, deciding it not too late to make a change, he embarked on a journey to becoming healthier.
Eighty years old this October and in what he calls “the best shape,” Owen’s success prompted him to inspire others in his age bracket to get active—and to give them the information needed. He’s done so through his 2017 National Geographic book “Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50,” and now, through the 30-minute PBS documentary “The Art of Aging Well.”
It can be streamed online at pbs.org/video/the-art-of-aging-well-phujhd, and will be broadcast in markets around the country in October. If successful, he says it could lead to three more installments.
Nevertheless, Owen doesn’t proclaim to be a personal trainer or a life coach, and he says he isn’t using either medium to sell or promote any products. He just wants people to get up and move.
“All we’re doing is spreading a message, and the message is that if you’re 60-65 years old, you’ve just got to get off the couch. You’ve got to move. That’s the message,” he explains.
“And I’m not saying you have to join a fancy fitness club or see a personal trainer—you sure as heck don’t need to lift heavy weights—but you have to move.”
A long journey
With a 35-year career in the investment world to his name, Owen recalls deciding in the mid-2000s to write a book called “Cowboy Ethics” as a reaction to what he calls scandals in the business world.
“I thought I might sell 500 copies,” he says, pausing for emphasis. “It sold 150,000 copies. So, the message, for whatever reason, caught on.”
He ultimately continued to write and publish other works, founded the nonprofit Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership foundation, and spent around a decade on the road public speaking “every single week.”
“I stopped counting after 300 speeches,” he adds with a laugh, listing West Point, the FBI Academy and Navy SEALs as audiences. “You name it, I’ve done it.”
Though he is fond of those days, calling it a rewarding point in his life, he admits the constant traveling had its consequences.
“The only problem was it damn near killed me. Just too many weeks, too many years on the road, late-night dinners, just constant pounding of travel,” he describes. “So, when I turned 70, I was in awful shape.”
Faced with “excruciating” lower back pain, knees that were “shot,” right-shoulder problems and being roughly 25 pounds overweight, Owen heard the wake-up call.
“I had just turned 70, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘If I feel this bad now, can you imagine if I’ll live 15 more years? I’ll be in a wheelchair or a walker,’” he says. “And that was all the motivation I needed to get off the couch and start doing something.”
So, he spent his next five years “determined to get rid of aches and pains.” And he has, adding that he now weighs less than he did in high school.
“I wasn’t trying to be a Superman,” he says. “I just said, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.’”
Feeling most fitness information was aimed at the younger generations, he decided to write his own informative, step-by-step book—“Just Move!”—geared at the older crowd, with the help of experts.
“The upshot is in 2017 … the Wall Street Journal called ‘Just Move!’ one of the five best books for what they call ‘healthy aging,’” he says.
But “what I realized was, if you really want to make an impact, the way of doing it in this health area is with visuals,” he says. “And I thought: a documentary.”
Admitting he didn’t know anything about making a documentary—and he wouldn’t have done it had he known how difficult it would be—he says he intended to figure it out, as he had “jumped in the deep end.”
With the help of three-time Emmy Award-winning director and acquaintance Jim Havey, it’s now a reality. The documentary incorporates practical tips, success stories and experts.
Though finding a distributor proved to be challenging, Owen says through a “fluke” and “sheer luck” he made a contact at PBS, getting the documentary picked up.
The message, he says, is especially relevant in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—including with the dangers of loneliness and depression, which he cautions can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
“The message could not be more relevant than it is today, because now there’s an urgency,” Owen says, noting many people are stuck at home and some older adults have underlying conditions and weight issues, are inactive, and drink and smoke. “You have to get off your feet. You have to do something.”
A ‘babe in the woods’
When Owen first decided to turn his life around, he admits he was a “babe in the woods.” He associated exercise with “bulking up,” but he says the goal as you age is to just lose weight and stop aches and pains, so he started doing research.
“What I realized was that, without exaggeration, 80% of what you read about getting fit—that kind of stuff—is aimed at young people,” he says. “Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a ‘you want to look good in a bathing suit, well, you better start in January’ kind of thing—or ‘I’m getting married in six months, I need to lose 20 pounds.’ It’s all very kind of vanity driven, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that doesn’t really help somebody who is 65 or 70 who’s really, really hurting.
“So my only motivation wasn’t to look great, wasn’t being Mr. America—it’s that I have to do something to stop this excruciating pain. It was just ruining my life.”
He emphasizes being “functionally fit.” And his journey, he says, was “trial and error.” The process requires a commitment and time.
“What I learned was there is no quick fix. It just really does take time,” he explains.
“What I say is it takes baby steps. Just put one foot in front of the other, and if you try and take big, long strides, you’re going to get hurt, you’re going to get kind of discouraged.”
Owen recommends making the process simple and doing basic moves, saying “all you really need to do is half a dozen tried and true exercises if you’re older.” While he suggests getting out of your comfort zone and gently pushing yourself, he says to be aware of your limitations. Having fun, he feels, is also important in keeping with the routine—working out with his wife, Stanya, helps him with that.
“What you realize when you get into this whole fitness thing, if you do, the key, the secret is just start from where you are and work on your weaknesses and not just your strengths,” he says.
But Owen clarifies fitness goes beyond just strength to mobility, flexibility and balance—and health goes beyond just exercise.
“To me, exercising is the foundation—make no mistake about that—but there’s a lot more to it,” he says, acknowledging other areas like clean eating and portion control, quality sleep, and positive attitude.
With a positive attitude, Owen never looks back. Purpose gives energy, he says.
“That’s just not me,” he says. “My best days are ahead. I guarantee you’ve not seen my best days. It’s just an attitude. I hate to say it, but that’s what keeps me young and full of energy. I don’t live in the past. I live in the future.”
He just prefers sticking to the creative realm—writing “Just Move!” and helming “The Art of Aging Well” documentary.
“I’ve done all I can do to live a healthy, happy lifestyle,” he says.
He feels more energized than he did when he was 50. His positive attitude and physical state allow him the ability to deal with whatever life throws at him.
“I’m just optimistic about the future, and just think that positivity absolutely attracts good things. I believe it’s true in my heart of hearts. That’s all I know.”
For more information on “Just Move!,” visit justmoveforlife.com.
For more information on “The Art of Aging Well,” visit theartofagingwell.com.