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The Lifestyle Habits of Successful Aging – It’s all about Behavior

Posted by telos on December 13, 2010

The book!

Having recently returned from the excellent International Council on Active Aging Annual Conference in San Diego, I have been thinking about and talking even more than usual about lifestyle ‘behavior’ and how it relates to independence and quality of life in our ‘Second Fifty. Here’s the result of all that pondering!

Back in 2004 the then Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Richard Cardoma was quoted as saying

“In the next 10 years one of the major issues in Health Care will be moving from receiving health care to embracing health prevention and wellness.”

More relevant to the topic of this article he also said

“Being physically active with a good diet and an active healthy lifestyle will not only do us good as individuals but will also dramatically reduce health care costs.”

These statements, while undeniably true, await more action and commitment from both government and population for their full benefits to be gained, perhaps in part because words like ‘action’ and ‘commitment’ sound like they are hard to do. Whatever the real reasons, the fact is that most seniors – just like other segments of the population – are relatively inactive. The good news, however – and contrary to conventional wisdom – is that adopting a more active, healthy lifestyle does not have to be hard, and is within the grasp of virtually anyone, as I will explain below.

I don’t think many people would argue with the statement that the most important thing for all of us as we age is to remain independent and healthy as long as possible. People know this instinctively, of course, and they certainly don’t need research to back up this feeling. However, as someone who has always been curious about such things I am always interested in the ‘how’ ‘what’ and ‘why’. Because of this, I have compiled a series of posts that I hope will act as a sort of mini-primer of lifestyle habits that research has shown to be strongly connected to active, healthy aging. This first post provides a brief overview of ‘Successful Aging’ and nine ‘habits‘ that are correlated with this concept.  Future posts will feature each one of the nine listed below. I am however providing one or two links to get you interested – or maybe get you started!

Successful Aging: The term “Successful Aging” was first used by two researchers Drs. John Rowe and Robert Kahn in their 1998 book of the same name. It summarized, in non-scientific terms, the findings of the decades-long MacArthur Foundation Study on Aging. This study looked at thousands of individuals who (in the author’s words) were ‘aging well.” We all know people like this of course: they look and act much younger than their chronological age, and seem to be far healthier and more active than their peers. The Study on Aging was designed to identify any factors which were common to these ‘Successful Agers’ and which separated them from the majority who were “Usual Agers’. As the authors so succinctly put it

“We were trying to pinpoint the many factors that conspire to put one octogenarian on cross-country skis and another in a wheelchair”

This landmark study identified three overarching elements of Successful Aging: (i) higher mental and physical function (ii) lower risk of disease and disability and (iii) more active engagement with life. In lifestyle terms these three components of Successful Aging can be broken down into specific lifestyle behaviors.

  1. Stay strong: Start a regular resistance training program to increase your strength and endurance. You can use free weights (dumbbells and barbells), weight training machines, or elastic tubing. You are never too old to benefit from this kind of training, and you can see and feel these benefits in as little as 20 minutes twice per week. Begin with four to six exercises that work your major muscle groups. Increase your resistance gradually as you get stronger. The important thing to know is that strength training is safe and effective for the great majority of older adults. Check out this link from the CDC for more details .
  2. Stay physically active: Way back in 1996, The Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health told us that walking briskly for a minimum of 30 minutes on most, preferably all days of the week, would provide great health benefits. If 30 minutes sounds like a long time to walk – no problem – you can accumulate this time throughout the day. So, for example, instead of ‘doing the 30’ all at once, you could walk 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes after lunch and 10 minutes in the evening. How easy is that?
  3. Maintain normal weight: Easier to say than to do? Not really, if you combine regular moderate intensity physical activity with strength training and a balanced diet you will have the optimal approach to weight management. As a good start to  the ‘what should I eat’ question, check out Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules: an eaters manual.“ Lots of great information as well as entertaining to read! His general advice is “Eat Food, not too much, mainly plants.” Read his book to find out what he means! Find it @
  4. Adopt good sleep habits: Establish a regular bed- and wake-time schedule that will improve your sleep quality. Avoid coffee or other drinks with stimulants at least 2 hours before sleep. Make your sleep area cool, dark and quiet. Check out the National Sleep Foundations “Sleeping Well Leads to Aging Well” @
  5. Maintain social contacts: Keep in touch with friends and family. Turn off the TV. Have conversations over meals, write letters, email or connect via the internet.  Attend social events and introduce yourself. Start or continue a hobby and search for similar groups in your area. Own a pet and meet people in the dog park! Give and receive hugs! Check out my blog post “With a little help from your friends” @
  6. Keep an alert and curious mind: Learn a new skill. Expand your horizons. Participate in classes and conversations, keep up with the news, have an opinion – and share it.
  7. Be self vigilant: Regularly check your overall physical, mental and medical condition. Ask yourself “How do I feel?” and listen to the answer. Establish a good relationship with your doctor and follow up with him or her if your self-check reveals something of concern.
  8. Engage with your environment: Look for ways to contribute. Volunteer for services such as “Meals on Wheels,” senior center programs, church groups and civic, or intergenerational organizations. Become involved with social or community programs that are interesting to you. Be a provider as well as a receiver of support.
  9. Be Positive: Research has shown that focussing on the positive aspects of being active is far more beneficial than focussing on the negative aspects of not being active. The new field of “Positive Psychology” has also shown that people who have a more optimistic view of things do better in life: they earn more money, are more successful, have more friends and even live longer. And as this wasn’t positive enough, you can even learn to be optimistic. Check out my blog post “Getting Less Bad” @

NOTE: This post is based on “Lifestyle Habits of Successful Aging” an article which appeared in my ”Energize your Aging!” column for the November Newsletter of “Aging with Grace” a nationally renowned aging services company whose mission is to educate, coordinate, and facilitate individualized eldercare options one family at a time. Check out the Newsletter @


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Asking the Expert – making your own difference

Posted by telos on October 15, 2009

Ask the ExpertWhen we want to ‘make a difference’ in our lives (get more active, get fit, lose weight, reduce stress etc), we go to an ‘expert’ for advice, guidance and, often, motivation. After all, an expert is usually someone who is highly trained and highly knowledgeable. This means that they know what to do. More importantly they know what YOU should do, what you ought to do (and of course what you have been meaning to do for some time!). When you meet with your expert what happens typically follows a common path – an approach that I call “Show and Tell”.

In simple terms here’s what these interactions usually look like:

Step 1. You meet with, and talk to an ‘expert’ about what your goal is (“I want to lose weight, get fit, reduce stress etc”)

Step 2. Then, after a conversation that varies in length from person to person, the expert first shows you what to do “Just follow these steps (and/or directions and/or advice”, and then tells you how to do it. “Make  sure you do it like this (and then this, and then this…”)

Step 3. The expert keeps showing you and telling you in different ways until you do it ‘properly’. If you do not succeed in making your goal, the typical expert response is something like

“Ok why do you think you didn’t make it?” or maybe “Ok let’s try (something different) this time”

By the way, the other thing to mention here is that if you don’t ‘make it’, the fault is almost always assumed to be yours (both by you and by the expert). Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough, or have enough will power, or enough commitment etc. Sound familiar?

Here’s the thing about this ‘Show and Tell’ approach. It is at its most effective only in Kindergarten! My children loved their Show and Tell sessions but have long since outgrown them and moved on to more appropriate learning methods. However, in my field of exercise, wellness and physical activity, Show and Tell still reigns supreme. The kind of three-step approach I describe above, is based on the assumption that if you simply provide intelligent people with important and understandable information about the benefits of healthy behaviors (or, more frequently, the risks of unhealthy behaviors) then they will take this to heart and ‘just do it’ (with apologies to Nike!). There is no question that, assuming the information and instruction provided is accurate, this really would be a highly effective approach

if only people would do it!

However history has shown us that, even with the ever-increasing availability of health and wellness information in the media and on the internet, more people are overweight and sedentary than ever before. It is clear that knowing what to do, or having an expert show and tell us what to do simply does not work – but we continue to ask them anyway!

This is not the fault of the expert, who has been through some highly demanding academic training that prepares them to offer their own thinking and expertise to the client as to what they ‘should’ do. It’s also not the fault of the client – who is prepared to believe that the expert knows best – after all that’s why they are an expert! The tendency is therefore that the expert will think (indeed, are trained to think) they know best for the client and the client will think that the expert knows best for them – that is, after all, why they went to him/her in the first place. No-one is ‘at fault’ here – it is fault neutral! However …..

It is time for a new way of thinking

Making your own difference: You are a singular and unique individual on this planet, you have your own goals and aspirations, your own motivations and inspirations, your own wants and your own needs your own ‘angels’ and your own ‘demons’. Here’s that new thinking – try this on for size!

YOU are the expert on you

No-one knows you better than you – no-one! You know instinctively this must be true, so think about what logically follows. If you pass over responsibility for yourself to someone else – to someone who knows only what they see of you, maybe has only just met you for the first time – to someone who can only work with what is merely apparent to them – how can you realistically expect something important and lasting to happen for you?

If you ask someone to ‘prescribe a program’ for you – and you take responsibility for doing the program. What you are actually doing is taking responsibility for THAT person’s program – for someone else’s stuff! After all they made it up FOR you. If and when you start, or – like so many others before, re-start such a program – you do so more in hope than expectation. This is no way to achieve a goal. Experts know all about ‘cause and effect’ – this is their training, this is their knowledge. They know that “If you do ‘this’, then ‘this’ will happen”. However they don’t know YOU – they haven’t been educated in YOU – the don’t have a degree in YOU.

We hear a lot these days about ‘personal responsibility’ – for health, for being active etc, and we hear about how it’s all down to us. At base, this is true of course – responsibility for our health is, in the main, ours. Taking responsibility is a good and desirable thing, but if you do take it, you’d better make sure it’s responsibility for something that’s yours – not someone else’s idea of what you should or shouldn’t do.

This is the new thinking – where you go from here is all about what’s important to YOU

I have also written about the related concept of  “Thinking Different” in a series of  previous posts – check out

More later

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Options, Actions, Directions

Posted by telos on March 3, 2009


options actions directions

If history is any judge, telling people what to do is not a great way of eliciting behavior change. As I have commented many times in different ways on this blog, goals are best achieved when they are truly/intrinsically important to the individual involved and when they have ‘ownership’ of the goal and the actions and directions leading to its achievement.

However, offering ‘options’ rather than ‘instructions’ or ‘tips’ can be one way of eliciting this kind of ‘intrinsic thinking’. So … here are some great options that have worked for many people who were ready to become more active. Some of these may work for you and some may not. Some may not even be possible or desirable  for you – but prompt a thought that takes you in a direction you realize that you value but just hadn’t anticipated.

So as you think about these options below, what options, actions and directions are coming up for you?

The ‘doc’ Option:  Actually, this first one is a recommendation! Although for the great majority of people, exercise is both safe and beneficial, we recommend that you first talk to your doctor about your ideas and options for becoming active before you start any kind of activity program. Include him or her in your options – they will definitely be interested! The American Medical Association and the American College of Sports Medicine have recently collaborated on an initiative called “Exercise is Medicine”. This recommends that physicians become more knowledgeable about, and involved in, the physical activity goals of their patients.  If you have questions about being active that your doctor can’t answer – or even if he/she can –  ask to be referred to a qualified wellness educator or trainer. You can also refer your physician to the “Exercise is Medicine” website – they’ll thank you for it! Here it is

The ‘family’ Option:  Research has shown that one option for activity is ‘social support’. In other word people are more likely to start and continue to be active if they have the support of others. So ….e.g. ask a family member, or a friend, to join you on your regular walks. This then becomes more of a social event than ‘exercise’ or ‘a workout’. Perhaps you can find someone who enjoys – or would like to enjoy spending some active time with you – from grandchildren to grandparents. Think about and talk to your family about ‘energy using’ ideas around the house or outside the house and incorporate them into your active lifestyle plan. Make it a game for you and/or your children. See “The F Word” for a different kind of thinking about exercise or physical activity

The ‘do a little more’ Option: Shopping, doing errands and even housework or chores can also be a way to add activity into your life. The great thing here is that to elicit any benefits, these ‘exercise that isn’t really exercise’ options only have to be at ‘moderate intensity’. For more details on doing ‘a little bit more’, see . Once you get the idea from this information, then you have endless options to be a higher energy user rather than a lower energy user!

The ‘extra steps’ Option:  A simple and inexpensive pedometer can keep count of your daily activity in terms of the number of steps you take each day. However here’s something to make a note of. When you read about pedometers, you will no doubt discover that you ‘need’ to do 10,000 steps per day to receive any health benefits. This is really oversimplifying things, so don’t get discouraged by this enormous number – physical activity is not solely about arithmetic. Look back at our 3rd option above and simply ‘do a little more’. In other words use your pedometer to track how many steps you usually take in a day (record 2 or 3 days and take the average) and then look for ways to add more steps to this total. Progress one step at a time! Here’s a great article on pedometers written by one of my old Exercise and Wellness buddies Dr. Catrine Tudor-Locke @     

The ‘get stronger’ Option: I have left the ‘best’ until last here (my opinion!). Strength training has developed a bad ‘rep’ over the years – at least for older adults. Myths abound about how it is ‘too dangerous at my age’, or ‘it’s only for younger people’, or ‘it’s only for women – younger women’. The reality – supported by more than a decade of scientific research – is that individuals of any age can benefit from an appropriate program of progressive strength training. At the STRIVE Wellness Corporation we have been conducting strength training programs with adults as old as 92 for more than a decade. The results are astonishing and the benefits remarkable. Check out our STRIVE Stories @ to see what older adults are saying about us, about STRIVE, and about how they feel as they get stronger. Also check out our blog @ for an (ever increasing)  series of short articles/posts about the many benefits of strength training. Getting stronger is so much easier – and the benefits so much greater than you may think!

So, again, as you think about these options above …

what action oriented options are coming up that are important to you?


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Little by Little

Posted by telos on February 19, 2009

Little by Little

Little by Little

When I was in my earliest years as a University professor I remember my proud mother asking what exactly it was that I did as ‘Dr. Phillips’. I said something like “I do a lot of research to find out what the benefits of exercise are for older people”. She replied “Why do you need to do that? Everybody knows that exercise is good for you – especially if you are older”. My whole carefully planned  research agenda crushed by a loving parent in two short sentences!!

Like my mother you’ve probably also heard that exercise is ‘good for you’ and you’ve probably heard it most of your life. Its one of those ‘conventional wisdoms’ that ‘everybody knows’ is true and has always been true. As a scientist I can tell you that although exercise is certainly an important path to good health and wellness, contrary to conventional wisdom it is not the only path. There is now overwhelming evidence that just being more active little by little throughout the day can elicit great health benefits. Although this is especially good news for  older adults – and perhaps somewhat surprising to most people – it is not exactly new news. 

Way, way back in 1961 two physicians, Hans Kraus and Wilhelm Raab published a book entitled “Hypokinetic Disease: diseases produced by lack of exercise”. Almost 50 years ago these two physicians were warning against the dangers of inactivity. Here’s a quote from their opening chapter: –

“When we analyze our daily lives, we can see how the active function of our muscles has been taken over step by step by labor saving devices. We do not walk, but ride; we do not climb stairs, but use elevators; we do not lift any thing of any weight, but we have devices that do that lifting for us. Most of the chores that used to require a certain amount of physical activity have been taken over by machines. We do not mow our lawns by pushing a lawnmower – it is become motorized. We have push button heating, we have vacuum cleaners, and we have dish washers. In short we do not move at all.”

Here’s another early quote that really grabbed me:-

“From the crib to the playpen, to the television set, perambulator (perambulator!!??), and school bus, our children are raised as a sedentary race, domesticated even from the first day of their lives”

Wow this is really ‘telling it like it is’ – and 50 years later we are still ‘telling’ the same thing.

More positively slanted evidence came some 35 years after Kraus and Raab with The Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health. Published in 1996 this was a massive review of the health and exercise literature which examined and analyzed literally thousands of studies on the health benefits of endurance/aerobic activities of various kinds. Their findings were  revolutionary. Not only did they confirm the existing belief that ‘fitness’ – represented by vigorous exercise – was beneficial to health but (and this was the revolutionary part!) they also found that physical activity of what they called ‘moderate intensity’ could provide major health benefits for previously sedentary or insufficiently active individuals. This is the summary sentence I used to make all my undergraduates memorize(!)

“Every American should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.”

What they called “Moderate intensity physical activity” could be any activity that felt about as hard as a brisk walk. This could include everyday activities such as household chores, mowing the lawn or raking leaves. If you look for new ways to include these types of activities at this level every day, it will increase your stamina (aerobic fitness) and significantly improve the way you feel. In other words you can, little by little, adopt a more active and healthier lifestyle. All you have to do is just ‘a little bit more’. That’s it! Great news for everyone who doesn’t like to exercise!

Not that my mother would have been too impressed with me telling her what she already knew!

 So – as you think about moderate intensity activity – what little thing is coming up for you?


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A little more higher energy usage

Posted by telos on January 16, 2008

Physical Activity Options

Just to follow up on my ‘be a higher energy user’ post today, I have attached an image taken from the Surgeon General’s Report (SGR) on Physical Activity and Health (and you just thought they talked about smoking!). The SGR was compiled by the brightest and best scientists in wellness, exercise and epidemiology. It was released in 1996 and was an enormous and exhaustive review of the scientific literature that examined the effect of physical activity on health. The “Physical Activity” in the title was defined as     

“… any activity performed by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure”.

Ok I know, I know, scientists tend to use lots of words, but really all they were saying here is any kind of bodily movement would count as physical activity. Their summary of all this research (the Report was almost an inch thick) was contained in a single sentence.

“Every American should accumulate  30 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all days of the week”

 “Moderate intensity” was any activity that felt as hard as a brisk walk. So what this means is that if you do something that feels about as hard as a brisk walk and do it in short bouts throughout the day that added up to around 30 minutes, you would get great health benefits – start feeling better, looking better, doing better. And the really cool thing is that the ‘something’ you do that feels as hard as a brisk walk, doesn’t have to be the same ‘something’! So 10 minutes of vacuuming (at a faster pace than usual) in the morning, 10 minutes of brisk walking before lunch and 10 minutes of raking leaves (at a faster pace than usual), would give you 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity. This almost sounds too good to be true. However more than 5 decades of peer-reviewed research supports this approach. Take my word for it.

So all those years ago – with technology and exercise physiology still in its infancy – Per-Olaf Astrand’s recommendation (See previous post) to ‘be a high energy user, not a low energy user’, really nailed it! What a guy!

The final thing is that these same SGR scientists also calculated that 30 minutes of  ‘moderate intensity physical activity’ worked out to around 150 Calories, and that you could get to this number (and recieve the same health benefits) by doing some things for a shorter time at a higher intensity and some things for a longer time at a lower intensity. The graphic illustrates some options for burning 150 Calories by performing a range of what you might call ‘Activities of Daily Living’.

Some of these options may work for you and some not. However as you think about this information and your lifestyle, in your own home and in your own environment ….. what’s coming up for you?


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Be a high(er) energy user, not a low(er) energy user

Posted by telos on January 15, 2008

Opened up my email this morning and found a reference to something called “Parkour” and “Free Running”. Since both of these were described as related to being active outdoors I checked them out. Parkour was initially developed in France and the name was taken from parcours du combattant, the classic obstacle course method of military training proposed by Georges Hébert a pioneering French physical educator, theorist and instructor. Free Running was developed out of Parkour. Here’s the definition of Parkour taken from its website 

 Parkour is the art of moving through your environment using only your body and the surroundings to propel yourself. It can include running, jumping, climbing, even crawling, if that is the most suitable movement for the situation. Parkour could be grasped by imagining a race through an obstacle course, the goal is to overcome obstacles quickly and efficiently, without using extraneous movement. Apply this line of thought to an urban environment, or even a run through the woods, and you’re on the right path. Because individual movements could vary so greatly by the situation, it is better to consider Parkour as defined by the intention instead of the movements themselves. If the intention is to get somewhere using the most effective movements with the least loss of momentum, then it could probably be considered Parkour.

Although it is not described as an ‘extreme sport’ the movements in all of the videos I looked at would be pretty hairy for most individuals, and at least from my first brief look,  suitable only for highly active people in great shape – or willing to train up to great shape.

Which brings me to my title above. A quote (with my paretheses) taken from Per-Olaf Astrand perhaps the grandfather of Work Physiology/Exercise Physiology. “Be a high energy user, not a low energy user”. He was of the opinion, way back in the 60’s that people could get great health benefits from using just a little more energy throughout the day. While Parkour certainly does this, most of us can fulfil this goal at much lower and more manageable levels of exertion.

So, although our country is seeking to lower energy costs if not lower energy usage, we as individuals will be far better off by seeking the opposite! Expend your own personal energy with abandon!  Take a regular everyday activity (e.g. vacuuming) and do it faster. A word of caution however, although the Robin Williams vacuuming scene in “Mrs Doubtfire” certainly utilizes the ‘higher energy user’  principle, in my expert opinion this is a little extreme! More like “Free Vaccuuming”

Most tasks in life can be done at a slightly elevated speed or with just a little more effort.  Research has shown that anyone can get great health benefits by adopting this “higher energy user” approach to life. Even better, you can achieve this by going a little faster, or a little longer. As you think about this and the tasks in your life ….. what’s coming up for you?


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