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The Lifestyle Habits of Successful Aging: Be Self-Vigilant!

Posted by telos on August 1, 2011

For the past several months I have been writing about the concept of “Successful Aging”, beginning with a brief overview of 9 “Habits of Successful Aging”. My subsequent posts have described and explained these habits in greater detail and suggested some avenues and options to more successfully include them in your lifestyle. This month’s habit for discussion is “Be Self-Vigilant”.

Check in with yourself

Being self vigilant about your overall physical, mental and medical condition involves conducting your very own personal “Wellness Audit”. This completes your “Circle of Wellness” by serving as a natural complement to all the Components of Successful Aging we have talked about so far, and will continue to talk about. Being self vigilant means asking yourself questions (e.g. “How do I feel?”), listening to the answers, and taking action where necessary.

Regular physical self-checks are an important part of self vigilance. While taking a shower or bath, for example, feel for any unusual lumps, bumps or skin discolorations. Ask yourself “How does this feel – how is it supposed to feel?”, “How does this look – how is it supposed to look?” There are a number of websites that can show you how to do this, as well as what to do if you do find something.  Check out WebMD  for example – an excellent source of valid and reliable information on health and wellness.

Being self vigilant also involves establishing a good relationship with your physician. A regular ‘physical’ is a good opportunity for discussion. It can also provide the chance to follow up with him/her if your self-checks reveal something for which you feel you need more information.

A typical ‘physical’ will focus predominantly on medical issues – blood pressure, medications etc. – and will provide essential information for your “wellness audit”. Adding a more functionally oriented assessment will broaden your self-awareness, and for this you would need to visit a physical therapy or rehab clinic. A small number of highly progressive clinics specialize in older adults and provide a more behavioral ‘wellness-oriented’ approach to treatment. Some of these clinics (e.g. ActiveRx Rehabilitation) offer ‘walk in’ services that include a comprehensive functional assessment for gait, balance, strength, flexibility, and coordination. Assessments such as these are highly predictive of future disability for older adults and can also reveal risk factors for catastrophic life events such as falls. Once these factors are  identified they can be addressed either with an appropriate therapeutic approach and/or a lifestyle change program that would develop healthy habits as well as improve physical function, independence and quality of life.

Successful Aging is all about pursuing an active, healthy and meaningful lifestyle. Being self-vigilant is an essential, though often underestimated, aspect of this.

Check in with yourself : do something about your future before your future does something about you!

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The Lifestyle Habits of Successful Aging: Be Positive!

Posted by telos on June 30, 2011

The forecast is Positive!

For the past several months I have been writing about the concept of “Successful Aging”, beginning with a brief overview of 9 “Habits of Successful Aging”. My subsequent posts have described and explained these habits in greater detail and suggested some avenues and options to more successfully include them in your lifestyle. This month’s habit for discussion is “Be Positive”.

Kicking yourself up the assets

Taking an ‘asset-based’ or positive approach to life has been a cardinal focus in the growing field of Positive Psychology. This research has demonstrated time and again that viewing life in a positive way is a far cry from the shallow philosophy espoused by Stuart Smalley, late of Saturday Night Live ”I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

As long ago as the 1980’s, educational research out of Stanford analyzing teaching performance reported that an approach focusing and building on a teacher’s ‘assets’ (i.e. their strengths, and what they did well) promoted high quality learning, while an approach focusing on a teacher’s ‘deficits’ (i.e. their weakness, and correcting what they were doing ‘wrong’) was far less effective. This ‘deficit-based’ approach however is still out there not only in education, but also in health, wellness and even Successful Aging!

Back in 2000 when I was an assistant professor at Arizona State University, I authored a book chapter in a major publication called “The Handbook of Health Psychology”. The title of the chapter was “Effects of physical activity on physical and psychological health:  Implications for exercise adherence and psychophysiological mechanisms” (A pretty long and involved title I admit, but then this was a pretty long and involved book – I was actually Chapter 38 out of 51!). The reason I bring this up here is that in my research for writing this chapter I was struck by the fact that almost everything I found on ‘psychological health’ in the scientific literature was about ‘getting less bad’.

Some 10 years later I am still seeing and reading much the same thing. The rationale(s) for setting and achieving wellness goals such as ‘getting active’, ‘getting fit’, or ‘eating healthy’ are still too often stated in terms of either reducing your actual bad stuff (e.g. losing weight) or on reducing your risk of bad stuff (e.g. risk of dying). With just a moment’s thought you could probably come up with your own list of the usual ‘bad stuff’ culprits: obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, stress, depression, anxiety, risk of a heart attack, risk of a stroke, etc.

I suspect this is a consequence of our long acquaintance with the ‘Medical Model’ of health – uniquely designed to kick in and fix the ‘bad stuff’, but with no designs at all on improving the ’good stuff’. The result of this is that we tend to view our wellbeing more in terms of how bad we aren’t rather than how good we are. When we try to improve our wellness behaviors we tend to focus more on overcoming obstacles rather than achieving goals, to focus on what we are not ‘going to get’ rather on what we will ‘be getting’.

One of the best known hypotheses in the field of Successful Aging is “The Compression of Morbidity”. This refers to the idea that the period of sickness (morbidity) at the end of life may be reduced (compressed) by adopting healthier lifestyles. This hypothesis has received much attention in the field of gerontology, and as a professor I have spoken about, and referred to it myself on many occasions. With my ‘Thinking differently’ hat on however, I see that, although this hypothesis was clearly aimed at doing good, it actually represented the ’getting less bad’ approach. Not much asset-kicking going on here! There is an obvious dichotomy between “Successful Aging” – a positive, asset-based concept, and “The Compression of Morbidity” a negative, deficit-based concept. So reframing this from a ‘Be Positive’ perspective, instead of “Compression” – why not “Expansion”? Instead of “Morbidity” – why not “Mobility”? And so we have “The Expansion of Mobility”. In other words ‘being better, longer’ instead of ‘being worse, shorter’.  Think about it.

What I have learned over the years both as a scientist and Intrinsic Coach® is that focusing on the positive aspects of pursuing an active lifestyle will bring you a host of positive benefits – you’ll look better and feel better about your self and your life, be more alert, have more energy, clearer thinking, better quality of life, better sleep, more independence.

And there’s more ….!

That old clichéd differentiation of people who either view ’the glass half empty or the glass half full’ reveals a pathway to some major (and positive!) consequences. You can learn to see the glass as ‘half full’ – you can learn to be optimistic! Check out Learned Optimism a landmark book by Dr. Martin Seligman, acknowledged as the founder of “Positive Psychology. The book is a decade old now but still relevant.

So as you think about the situations and goals in your life – what assets are kicking up for you?

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The Lifestyle Habits of Successful Aging: Get Sleep!

Posted by telos on June 3, 2011

For the past several months I have been writing about the concept of “Successful Aging”, beginning with a brief overview of 9 “Habits of Successful Aging”. My subsequent posts have described and explained these habits in greater detail, offering some avenues and options for more successfully including them in your lifestyle. This month’s habit for discussion is “Get Sleep”.

Catching some zzzzz’s

We all know that feeling of not being able to sleep. You toss and turn, mind racing, just lying there going over and over the day – and what about tomorrow?? Will you ever get to sleep? It seems like something you can’t avoid after a busy, stressful day.

However, for those of us that experience these kind of nights, there is good news! You  really CAN do something to catch more zzzzz’s! These are easy to learn habits that research has shown will improve sleep and sleep quality, a condition known as ‘sleep hygiene’.

Good habits for good sleep

  • Be active: This is the primary foundation of good sleep, as long as your physical activity and/or exercise is appropriate for you and for your lifestyle. Exercising at too high an intensity, or too late in the day can disrupt sleep and leave you feeling fatigued and listless in the days following. For a basic guide to increasing the activity in your life, see my ‘Stay Active!” post @ For optimum ‘sleep impact’ finish your activity at least 3 hours before bedtime since exercising any later is likely to have a wakening effect!

Other sleep inducing habits include …

  • Develop sleep rituals: Give your body cues that it is time to slow down and sleep. Listen to relaxing music, read something soothing for 15 minutes, have a cup of caffeine-free tea, try relaxation exercises.
  • Put your brain in neutral: Performing brain-stimulating activities shortly before bedtime can keep you awake, so save things like working, paying bills, engaging in competitive games or family problem-solving for earlier in the day.
  • Keep the lights low: Exposure to bright lights before bedtime send ‘wake up’ signals to the body at exactly the wrong time!
  • Create a ‘sleep-friendly’ atmosphere: Make it cool, quiet, dark, comfortable and free of interruptions.
  • Seek whole body comfort: Buy a quality mattress and pillows. This one purchase will contribute to your sleep hygiene for up to a decade!
  • Eat late, early: Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime. This allows your body and digestive system to settle down by the time you are trying to do the same. Vocal gymnastics by your stomach does nothing for sleep quality!
  • Establish regular bed and wake up times: The more of a routine you develop the better the sleep pattern. Don’t forget the weekends.
  • Keep it to “40 winks”: Although a ‘power nap” (that’s ’40 winks’ for all you non-Brits – see can be very effective for energy replacement, longer daytime naps can disrupt your nightly sleep pattern.
  • Be stimulant free, nightly: Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol products all contain ingredients that, when ingested close to bedtime, can keep you awake

Finally, if after all this, you still have problems with sleeping – or with staying awake/alert during the day, you should also consult your physician. Be sure to tell him/her if you have already tried these tips and for how long.

Based on information from the National Sleep Foundation @

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The Lifestyle Habits of Successful Aging: Stay Active!

Posted by telos on June 1, 2011

 For the past several months I have been writing about the concept of “Successful Aging”, beginning with a brief overview of 9 “Habits of Successful Aging”. Subsequent posts have described and explained these habits in greater detail and suggested some avenues and options to more successfully include them in your lifestyle. This habit for discussion in this post is “Stay Active”.

High Energy Users!

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

A huge amount of research has shown that when we become regularly active – even just a little more active – not only do we feel better and have more energy, but we can also improve the symptoms and outcomes of even serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer and stroke. Being regularly active can also help ease tension, reduce stress and improve overall quality of life.

So far sounds good! But what does ‘being active’ actually mean? Working out? Playing sport? Jogging? Does walking my dog count for me or just for my dog? These are all important questions that most of us would like the answer to, and that researchers have been investigating for many years. How much is enough? That is the $64,000 question. The good news is that we now have an answer, although it has been some time in coming!

The subtitle of this article is a quote (with my additional parentheses) from Per-Olaf Astrand, a legendary Scandinavian researcher, and the grandfather of “Work Physiology” (Later to become known as “Exercise Physiology”). The actual quote is “Be a high energy user, not a low energy user”. My parenthetical additions are to avoid the impression that high levels of energy are necessary to elicit health benefits. We now know (Phew!) that this is not the case, as you will see below.

Dr. Astrand’s research showed, way back in the 1960′s, that people who looked for ways to be ‘high energy users’ throughout their day could get great health benefits. Inactive people (‘low energy users’) on the other hand would gain no health benefits. He emphasized the importance of his findings by another often quoted comment

“Anyone wishing to adopt a sedentary lifestyle should first of all undergo a stringent medical examination to see if they are fit enough to stand the inactivity!”

Dr. Astrand was so far ahead of his time that it took more than 30 years for his insights to become a part of national guidelines.  In 1996 The Surgeon General’s Report (SGR) was published and laid out the relationship between Physical Activity and Health. The bottom line of this report stated that

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

‘Moderate intensity’ was considered to be a brisk walk, or any activity that felt about as hard as a brisk walk. In other words something that required a little more energy than ‘usual’. Sound familiar?

Also, if the recommendation of 30 minutes, seems like a long time – no problem – you will see from the SGR quote above that you can accumulate your 30 minutes throughout the day. So, for example, instead of ‘doing the 30’ all at once, you could walk briskly for 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes after lunch and 10 minutes in the evening. Your brisk walk is the ‘higher energy’ that Dr. Astrand recommended.

Even better, because your body doesn’t differentiate between the kinds of ‘energy’ you use, you can get to your 30 minutes with a variety of activities!  So for example, instead of 3 sessions of walking throughout the day, you could wash the car in the morning, rake leaves after lunch, and do the vacuuming in the evening. Only the energy expenditure counts – the specific activity could be anything capable of being performed at moderate intensity.

So, although for our country’s health, we are seeking to reduce energy costs and reduce energy usage, for our individual health we will be far better off seeking ways to do the exact opposite!

Because of this, I say to anyone whose attention I can attract, “Expend your own personal energy with abandon!” Most everyday tasks (called ‘Activities of Daily Living’ or ADL for short) can be done at a slightly elevated speed, or with just a little more effort, or for just a little longer. So take one of your regular everyday chores, be it vacuuming, raking leaves, washing the car, whatever, and do just a little more than usual. Keep looking for ways to include ADL at this ‘higher energy’ level every day. It will increase both your stamina (aerobic fitness) and your health!

As you think about these ideas – what ADL options are coming up for you?

Get your ‘daily dose’ of 30 today!


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The Lifestyle Habits of Successful Aging: Stay Strong!

Posted by telos on December 18, 2010

In my last post I wrote about the concept of “Successful Aging”, and gave a brief overview of 9 “Habits of Successful Aging”. My next few posts will describe and explain each of these habits in greater detail and suggest some avenues and options to more successfully include them in your lifestyle. The first of these habits is

Stay Strong!”

strength is health!


Strength Training 101: Maintaining strength (staying strong) is now recognized as perhaps the most effective way to maintain and improve independence and a great way to ‘Energize your Aging”!


Strength Training is not rocket science, but there are some basic guidelines that, if followed, will ensure safe and effective exercise as well as keeping you on track for success. Happy Lifting!

  • Choose exercises that work your body’s major muscle groups (Chest, Back, Shoulders, Abdominals, Low Back, Legs)
  • Balance your routine by using a ‘Pushing’ exercise followed by a ‘Pulling’ exercise for opposing muscle groups e.g Chest (Push) with Back (Pull). Thighs (Push) with Hamstrings (Pull).
  • Work your larger muscle groups before your smaller ones (e.g. Chest and Back before Biceps and Triceps)
  • Start with 4-6 basic exercises for the first 4 weeks and then add one exercise each week up to a maximum of 10 as your skill and strength increases. A good ‘starter’ routine would be (in this order) 1. Chest Press, 2. Row, 3. Leg Press, 4. Leg Curl, 5. Abdominals, 6. Back Extension
  • Adjust each machine to best fit your body shape and size, using trial and error. Make a note of each adjustment and set them in place before each exercise
  • Start with a resistance (weight) you can comfortably perform for 10-12 repetitions. For the first few sessions, as your muscles adapt to their new work, aim for an effort of around 5 out of 10 on a ‘How hard does this feel?” scale (where 10 is the maximum and 1 the minimum).
  • Once you are familiar with the machines and exercises you can start to progressively add additional weight/resistance. Your goal will be to eventually work up to a resistance that feels between 8 and10 on your “How hard does this feel?” scale
  • Your ‘rule of thumb’ for progression is to add weight once you are able to complete 12 repetitions with good technique for 2 consecutive sessions. Add no more than one block of a machine weight stack (or approximately 5% of your previous resistance, whichever is least) for each progression
  • Focus on good technique throughout each exercise.
    • Take a breath in at the starting position of the lift
    • Breath out as you perform the lift
    • Breath in as you return to the starting position
    • Continue with this breathing rhythm for the required number of repetitions
  • The speed of movement for each exercise should be approximately 2 seconds   for the ‘lift’ phase and 4 seconds for the ‘return’ phase’. However don’t get bogged down by the ‘arithmetic’! Focus on “Slower back than out”
  • Perform one set of each exercise 2 to 3 sessions per week. You can obtain similar strength gains from 2 sessions per week as from 3, so you don’t have to worry too much on a busy week.
  • Use a Training Log to record your progress. Apart from keeping yourself on track, looking back to see how far you have progressed is highly motivating!  NOTE: Contact me and I will send you a training log via email

If you follow these general guidelines you will be able to safely complete a strength training session in 30 minutes or less including warm up and cool down, even with the maximum of 10 exercises.

NOTE: This post is based on “Lifestyle Habits of Successful Aging” an article which appeared in my ”Energize your Aging!” column for the December 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 their Newsletter @

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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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