A couple of weeks ago, I made what turned out to be an inspired decision, to attend a TALK (Third Age Learning at Kwantlen) presentation. Author Bruce Grierson shared his life-altering/improving experiences when he became Olga’s side-kick in order to research and write What Makes Olga Run?
I was curious about Olga Kotelko, a woman who decided to take up track and field at the ripe age of 77. She had been playing softball, but after she was knocked over during an on-field collision, decided it was just too dangerous. Olga, a former teacher, single-mother and farm girl from the Prairies, defined what aging well looks like. What was her secret, though? What did she eat, drink and do that allowed her to hit the road to compete, especially at an age when many people were on their way to the “Big Rest”?
Others were curious, too. Olga agreed to be poked, prodded and in a sense, pickled by researchers at major institutions in Canada and the United States. Scientists collected and saved muscle tissue samples to compare with other octogenarian and nonagenarian Master’s athletes – a relatively small sample group. Scans peeked into Olga’s brain to see whether there were traffic jams in her neural pathways. They wondered what made her genes fit her so well? Could she possess some sort of titanium genes? Blood was analyzed, lung function measured, mitochondria tested, personality tests administered. Olga, a woman in possession of more than 750 gold medals, was the type of subject who presented more questions than answers.
As Bruce said, “Health, happiness, performance and longevity: those are the four dimensions of The Good Life. Ace all four and you can consider yourself among the lucky few. Olga aced all four.”
Much like a negative that is dipped in developing fluid, the picture of Olga and her remarkable joie de vivre was exposed to Bruce during the course of the five (or so) years that he spent with her. Although he didn’t say it, it was apparent in the way Bruce spoke about Olga that they were years during which time Olga’s classification shifted from book subject to friend – a very dear and wise friend. In addition to offering Bruce a “master class in life”, she also modeled behaviours that could help stymie the steady creep of the decades.
What does make Olga run?
Bruce discovered that the ingredients that made Olga run and volunteer and bowl and garden and paint and cook and all the other things she did, boiled down to this list of seven factors:
You may have heard that “sitting is the new smoking” and for Olga, who was rarely still for more than half an hour, this accrued interest in her bank of longevity. She rested, but then she got up to do something else. Olga had created her own Blue Zone in West Vancouver. (Blue Zones are pockets around the world, such as Ikaria, Greece and Okinawa, Japan, where people live longer and better.)
Recently, a 16 year long study involving 5000 participants has challenged the claim that sitting invites an early death. According to this article in Science News, it’s not the sitting that’s the problem, but rather, the lack of activity. So, ask yourself what you can do to get more active – around your home, at work and even on vacation. Make the reason important enough to warm up your engine and get you in gear. Pump up the volume and put your heart and muscles to work. I don’t know about you, but I want to be an active driver in my twilight years; not just a passenger (collapsed in my recliner). So, in spite of living with rheumatoid arthritis, I will make every move count for as much as I can, doing what I can, when I can.
So, you may not want to become a track star, but you can become more active. It’s good for your heart and it’s good for your brain.
2. Keep routines (but sometimes break them).
Olga had a formula that enabled her to “ritualize the mundane to make room for the brilliant.” She created a life for herself that included an optimal mix of routines with the flexibility to allow her to alter course. Those routines enabled her to maintain her fitness level, and in some cases exceed it, earning her world records in a number of different track and field events.
Bruce observed that Olga was a master at mindful attention and immediate correction. Whether it was bowling or performing at a track and field event, Olga would analyze her performance afterwards, looking for what she did right, as well as what she did wrong, then she would repeat, correct or alter her behaviours.
Routines help you achieve your goals, regardless of what those goals may be. Routines are great, but they can get boring so take Kenny Roger’s advice: “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” Learn to listen to your body. What lifestyle changes do you need to make in order to feel optimal? Become a scientist, observe your behaviours, which are often subtle, so they may go unnoticed. It’s important to build your awareness, as this can serve as a sling-shot, propelling you into greater health and well-being.
3. Be opportunistic.
Olga grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan and lived her life according to the “harvest principle”, otherwise known as “make hay while the sun shines.” Farmers listen to Mother (Nature), sowing, growing and reaping according to the seasons. Strategy matters. Work hard to get the harvest in, but also take time to rest. Downtime re-calibrates the endocrine system and slows down cell turnover. When you give your body the rest it needs, you actually age more slowly.
A “farming frame of mind” meant that Olga was finely attuned to her body and her environment. She had a strong preservation instinct that allowed her to go for it when it was acceptable to do so.
There’s wisdom that grows when you live with rheumatoid arthritis for thirty-seven years, like I do. I (mostly) know when I’ve over-done it. I also know how much I can tolerate before the warning bells sound, telling me it’s time to stop and rest. I’ll take advantage of handicapped washrooms and the (typically) higher toilet seats, which help to save my knees. I use gadgets to help save my hands. I use technology to increase my resilience. There can be a chasm between being reckless and being pragmatic.
As a teenager, I hated the fact that I lived on a farm. The relentless teasing and bullying from classmates. The long commutes to and from school. The hard work, often in extremely cold conditions. I couldn’t wait to get away. Now, I have a new respect for what my early life gave me. I often reminisce with my sister about how lucky we were to have 160 acres of playground, which also happened to be 160 acres of “workground”. In Soil (Soul) Inspiration, I share some of my learnings. (Yes, that’s me with the chickens!)
4. Be a mensch.
“Mensch” is an old Yiddish word that means “human being”, with the qualities of being kind, thoughtful, loyal, considerate and caring. What’s in your heart matters, and it can over-ride the story of what’s in your genes. “Being a jerk shortens your life,” claims Time magazine.
Being a mensch does not mean you are a doormat. It’s important to have a high enough self-regard that says that your needs matter. Olga knew this on a deep, cellular level.
Did you know that kindness can help to break down stress? Kindness, when done as an act of love and compassion can build resilience. However, when it is done begrudgingly, it detracts from the positive benefits that accumulate when kindness is an act of love and compassion.
Overcare, common among those in the “helping professions”, lead to burn-out and resentment. As a former teacher and even now, as a stress coach, I can free-fall into this. Fortunately, I now have skills that allow me to recognize when this is occurring and to fight the gravity of overcare. Do you? (I can help.)
5. Believe in something.
Faith was important to Olga. As an active volunteer in her church, she reaped the benefits of these 3 qualities that faith offers:
i) community – and we know that social isolation is the number one health risk;
ii) a dimension to being of service;
iii) a sense of purpose.
What is bigger than you? What do you do that brings you the 3 qualities that Olga experienced from her faith?
6. Cultivate a sense of progress.
Purposeful people make more of an enzyme that protects chromosomes, which helps you to age more slowly. Olga’s philosophy: “Do whatever you need to do. Poke me, prod me, biopsy me – just make it count. Whatever secrets you unlock, make them available. If someone down the line can benefit from who I am, from what I am, I’m all in.”
While you don’t need to become the equivalent of a “medical test pilot”, you can farm your life to reap benefits that allow you to learn, change and grow. Stoke the fire in your soul. Get more “bouncebackability“—resilience—as you work on projects that are important to you.
7. Lighten up.
“It’s not what happens to us – it’s how we respond to what happens to us. And that is a choice. Attitude is a choice.” Olga lived by this philosophy. Chronic stress ages us more quickly than anything else. Cortisol, which we pump out when we’re stressed, kills neurons eventually — so stress that we don’t deal with makes us lose our marbles faster, too.
When you soak in negative thoughts and emotions (stress), you tend to view life, not through rose-coloured glasses, but through lenses that are scratched, cracked or broken. Stress breaks your funny bone. Everything can take on the appearance of a Greek tragedy. Feelings of lightness are only words in a dictionary – they mean nothing to you somatically. I understand this. That was me. Learning to change my heart-rate variability (HRV)—the way in which your heart speeds up and slows down—has helped enormously. (Curious about HRV? I sell technology and coaching to help you improve the quality of your HRV, which will help you change your perceptions.)
Like all delicious recipes, there’s often a secret ingredient, or as Bruce called it…
…Stealth Rule #8. Begin Now.
In The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character said, “You can get busy living, or you can get busy dying.” Scientists estimate that around 25% of healthy longevity is genes, and 75% is environment. Bruce reminded us that what we do, what we eat, where we go and what we experience matter far more than the genome we rode in on.
The nay-sayers may counter this by relating how difficult their life is and how they come from bad genes, so there! It’s important to know that Olga didn’t have it easy. While pregnant, she ran for her life—her alcoholic husband almost killed her—taking her young daughter to her sister’s home in New Westminster, B.C. As a single mother, she earned her teaching degree at night, while working full-time during the day. She experienced other challenges along the way, but gradually built a life that suited her.
Olga passed away at age 95, let her story inspire you. It is never too late to effect change. Like a drooping plant that suddenly perks up when watered, the body too, will respond to any life-affirming elixirs that you can provide. Set small goals. Celebrate when you reach them. Move on to the next one. Even if you don’t see a lot of change, you may maintain, and that also counts!
If you find that the “yabbits” – the “yes, but…” statements poking their gopher-heads up, thank them, and move on. They keep you stuck in the story of “I can’t”. There is no chapter on creativity and problem-solving in that story. Notice and begin again. It is never too late! Be like my then 87 year old friend Lisa, who sat down at my booth at a trade show and “want to learn to live a better life.” (Incidentally, she is now 96 years young!)
What Makes Olga Run?
For further details on just what made Olga run, I highly suggest you get the book. Through Bruce’s writing you get to deep-dive into Olga’s life as she makes her way from home, to research facilities and Master’s track and field events.
Not only was I inspired by Olga’s story, but also by Bruce’s writing. He does an excellent job of marrying science and creative writing in a way that makes this book a page-turner. He sprinkles this book with humour, too, relating that “before-Olga”, if he were a chicken, he couldn’t be classified free-range. He also makes a poignant point about urine bags and inactivity. (You’ll just have to read the book!)
I strongly urge you to become more Olga-like in your lifetime. Do it now, not tomorrow. I highly recommend What Makes Olga Run?, regardless how young you are. I particularly advise reading it if you feel old.
Bruce has gained a new fan! He has been featured in a number of publications, including Time magazine, The New York Times, Psychology Today and Reader’s Digest, has gained a new fan! I look forward to reading his other book, U-Turn – What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life? He has many admirers, which explains why he is a five-time Canadian National Magazine Award winner.
If you get the chance to hear him speak, do so! If you can’t, here is Bruce speaking at a TEDX Talk:
Are you wondering how the Royal Family turns over the odometer on life? Check out this article in Everything Zoomer: The Royal Secrets of Longevity.