Forget about keeping up with octogenarian James P. Owen while he’s doing pushups. Just talking to him for more than an hour on the telephone is both exhilarating and exhausting.
“I’m an average guy. Nothing special, nothing unusual or extraordinary about me,’’ says Owen, especially when he compares himself to his wife of 53 years, Stanya.
“We were on the ‘Today’ show a year or two ago, and they said, ‘Oh Jim, he’s all right, but Stanya, she has star power!’ I married up,’’ he said.
For an ordinary guy, Owen has quite the resume: He managed money on Wall Street for 35 years, then retired to become a traveling spokesman for his book, “Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West’’ (2004). “We thought it might sell 500 copies but the first printing sold more than 160,000 copies,’’ he said.
He followed that with two more books in the series and founded an inspirational institute, the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership. The foundation was created to help spread the message that ”we can all be heroes in our own lives,’’ says its website.
But, by then he was stooped and run down from flying around the country promoting the books. After listening to Owen speak almost nonstop for an hour, it’s hard to believe that he was a “certified couch potato’’ who was 35 pounds overweight, suffered chronic back pain from too many hours on airplanes, and was unable to walk more than five minutes without huffing and puffing.
Then he turned 70.
Finding motivation to change
“I laugh when I’m asked what motivated me. I listened to my body and what I thought was, ‘Jimbo, you are a nice guy, you better do something to get in shape or a wheelchair is going to be my future.’ “
“I’m a big reader and the one statistic I came across that changed my life said that in a population of 100,000 adults, if you make it to age 70, statistically, you will live another 15 years,” he said. “I’m thinking, If I look and feel this bad at 70, in 15 years what’s it going to be like!’’’
He began with a walking regimen, and a modified diet, but his back pain persisted. Owen decided he needed gym workouts under the supervision of a fitness trainer to truly shape up. It took Owen six months of working out at a gym with trainer Scott Gassner, whom he credits with showing him the right way to exercise. By then, he had started to lose weight, gain endurance and look pretty good. He maintains a weight of 155 pounds on a 6-foot frame.
“I stuck with it,” he said. “On Day 1, I could not do one pushup! I tried. I wanted to know what was the secret. There is no secret. You just start from where you are, and do the best you can with whatever you have got. I started with strength training because I was so weak.’’
This is good advice for advisors and their clients, of course after consulting with their medical professionals.
By the time Owen reached his 75th birthday, he had lost 35 pounds and could do 50 “real’’ pushups. (Now at 82, he does 25 pushups.) And he had more energy than he did at 50.
“I didn’t overthink it too much. I thought I really enjoy this. I didn’t go on a fanatical diet, I just listened to my body. I knew I had found my sport,’’ Owen said. He has the gentle folksy accent of a Kentuckian (Both he and Stanya are Kentucky natives), which makes his inspirational comments flow like honey.
He heartily endorses exercising with a buddy. Stanya, fills that role, which makes working out fun and good for him, he said.
In 2017, Owen wrote another best seller, “Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50,’’ about how to undertake a regimen of exercise, healthy eating and upbeat thinking, based on his experience, shared with Stanya, of working out in a gym in Austin, Texas, where they lived at the time.
With all that new energy, Owen produced a documentary, “The Art of Aging Well,’’ shown in first run on PBS stations in nearly 124 markets and now available online.
He’s currently working on a new documentary, “How to Become a Superager.’’
“It will air in the first quarter of this year.” he said. “I’ll be working on that until 10 tonight. I’ll be in it, but it’s not about me, me, me … The key is, anybody can do it.
“I am fascinated by this concept of functional fitness. You know there are people who are 60 and look and move like they are 80, and those at 80 who look like they’re 60. What does the second group know that the first one doesn’t?’’
Two years ago, Owen and his wife moved from Austin to a high-rise senior community in La Jolla, California, to be closer to their married daughter, Allegra. His neighbors include a number of superagers, including a 92-year-old.
“He has got a spark, an interest in life. He is not looking at life and saying ‘My best days are behind me.’ Before our conversation, I visited him and we talked about aging and about social isolation and he says, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ He is young at heart. His best days still lie ahead, and I feel the same way.’’
When Owen was asked if he ever had doubts about his own abilities, he answered quickly.
“No. I have some health issues now which I will not go into. I’m 82. The body breaks down as we age. It’s not possible to be any more fit than I am,” he said. “The doctors tell me, ‘Jim you’re amazing.’ But where I am now is having happy relationships — with friends, you betcha, with family, you betcha. If all you do is work out at the gym, that’s not going to make you happy.’’
Owen follows common-sense eating habits. He’s watchful of sodium intake; eats a minimal amount of indulgences such as cheeseburgers and desserts; and consumes plenty of fish, fresh fruit, vegetables and water.
And he doesn’t drink alcohol. Six years ago, he gave up drinking, specifically his beloved pinot noir.
“I had two glasses of wine every day. I miss it, but I feel better without it. I have a liter of water every morning and afternoon — water, water, water is my favorite. And yes, I do eat dark chocolate every single day. I just don’t stuff myself.’’
Owen advocates being fit throughout life rather than climbing the mountain at 70. But he acknowledges that the rising cost of healthcare and the demands of raising a family can play havoc with taking care of oneself when younger.
“I think when people reach 60 or 65, they’re seeing that they cannot depend on the government to take care of their health. Honestly, I don’t know that the money is there. Look at Great Britain. You have to wait three to four months to see a doctor.
“So, you have to take responsibility and do what you can do. But we do have to do more for people who don’t have the money to take care of themselves, through no fault of their own. I will always be willing to pay for someone at an income level who can’t afford to pay for their medicine, who can’t afford to be healthy, which is about 20% of the population.’’
More emphasis on preventive care
What needs overhauling is the medical profession that, Owen says, does not emphasize preventive care.
“Doctors are not in the prevention business,” he said. “They do not study this in medical school. If you asked them, ‘How many hours did you study nutrition?’ Four! ‘How about studying about exercising for your health?’ Maybe eight hours. That is the problem. The whole premise of what I do is that you have to take care of yourself.’’
You’re in the right territory when you ask Owen, who spent 35 years as a partner in three different Wall Street firms, how advisors can start a conversation with clients about health and fitness, without being too nosy.
“My best advice is to come at it from a place of support … Making a change, especially this late in life can be hard if you don’t have the support as someone can be stuck in their routines,” he says. Encourage them to “put dates in the schedule for daily walks and weekly workouts,” he says, and tell them it ‘s because you want to help them get healthy.
As for Owen, “I’m not by nature a promoter — I’m not selling a protein powder here — I am just selling what I believe. “he says. “I’m happy to talk to a financial group and show them my film. I am an educator and inspirational speaker. This is my purpose to tell people you can still take up activities at 55, 60, 75, like I did — an overweight, broken down, no energy guy. If I can do it, anybody can do it.’’
“I have never once worked out when I didn’t feel better when I finished than I had when I started. Maybe I’ll only do 20 minutes but that’s OK. I do stretching throughout the day, and bending and strength exercises. It’s not a big deal, I might even do it in the elevator.
“But in truth, my happiest time is not working out the way we do, but walking on the beach holding hands, laughing like 14-year-old kids. That’s my idea of a good time. To be a better friend, father, husband, that is where I am right now in my head. That is why I am doing this.’’
In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.