Fitness, Health & Wellness
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(photo: Anna Shvets /

In my 30s, I exercised to look good, in my 50s, to stay fit, in my 70s, to stay ambulatory, in my 80s, to avoid assisted living. Now in my 90s, I’m just doing it out of pure defiance. – Dick Van Dyke

Dick Van Dyke’s quote about the active life he’s maintained at 97 years old is featured in the pages of a fantastic book I’m reading called Built to Move by Kelly and Juliet Starrett. 

The cover of Built to Move by Kelly Starrett and Juliet Starrett.

The authors, one a doctor of physical therapy and the other an accomplished Olympic athlete, have spent decades working with pro athletes, Olympians, and Navy SEALs. Their book sought to answer one burning question: In a time when all the forces of technology and desk-centric careers to make a living (sitting) are working against us, how are we supposed to stay fit, agile, and young as we age? 

In their book, they reveal ten key strategies called “vital signs” to do just that, and in this month’s column, I will share some of those lessons to get you started. Read on, and, like Mr. Van Dyke, you’ll be on the path to thriving at 97 years old.

Vital sign number one: the sit-to-rise test. There was a study done in 2014 that was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology where they found an inability to get up and down off the floor without assistance is associated with a greater risk of death. Conversely, the higher the subject scored on the test, the greater the improvement in their statistical likelihood of survival. 

The book leads you through a test where you are scored on a scale of 1-10. My grandma’s score when I started training her at the age of 86 was 5/10. 

Every day I trained her, I had her lie on the floor, either on her stomach or her back, and coached her through getting back to her feet. It was physically exhausting, but she could always get back to her feet. She hated me for that but appreciated it when she fell in the shower and could get back up on her own. 

When did you last get onto the floor and back to your feet? How easy or hard was it? Can you do it without using your arms and losing your balance? How do you get better at the sit-to-rise test if you are not good at it? You can do what my grandmother did — she got onto the floor more often than she wanted to; she also hired a personal trainer to work with her on mobility and strength exercises.  

Vital sign number two: breathing. We do it every day without having to think about it consciously. When was the last time you assessed how well you were breathing? Did you even know there was a better way to do it? 

The Starretts take breathing seriously and believe it’s a key component to your body mechanics, helping you move more efficiently, avoid injury, and feel less pain. 

The first thing they assess when taking on new athletes is how the athlete breathes. They break it down into three components: breathing spaciously, meaning your belly, ribs, and chest expand generously as you inhale; breathing slowly and breathing through your nose rather than your mouth, even, whenever possible, during times of exertion; lastly, being able to hold your breath — the longer and slower your exhales, the more oxygen you’ll be able to utilize. 

Some ways to improve your breathing? Set a five-minute timer, get into a comfortable position — on your back is usually the best — and breathe. Pay attention to how you are breathing. Is your belly rising as you inhale? Is your inhale/exhale short or long? Can you close your mouth while doing it? 

All these things will give you feedback on how you are doing it. If you need some help, I’d go to Google and search for “diaphragmatic breathing videos,” or you can go to your local yoga studio.

Vital sign number three is all about movement. Step counting, to be more precise, and this one is simple but not easy. 

One of the primary functions of the brain is to move. Walking doesn’t just get you moving. It gets you moving the right way; it offsets the ills of marathon sitting. Especially for you folks who wake up, drive to work, and then park yourself into a chair for another eight to ten hours. That’s life for most of us; how do we combat that now? 

The Starretts believe walking surpasses any fitness gadget or club membership you can buy. They believe it’s the best movement tool available. If you don’t know your step count, I would advise you to check your phone and look into the fitness app to see your weekly average.

Then, the next challenge for you would be to see if you can double or triple your steps for the next four weeks. Goal numbers: 8,000-12,000 steps for a weekly average. My professional sitters out there, you’ll need to plan after-dinner walks for about 20-30 minutes. One mile of walking will get you about 2,000 steps. See how your body responds to the added movement in your life. You’ll thank me later.

There you have it. The book was amazing, and the Starretts go into much more detail than me. You can do a lot more, but if you start with these three steps, you’ll make huge headway to a long, healthy life as you age. 

We can all strive to live like Mr. Van Dyke, dancing and working out in our 90s out of pure defiance. spt

Eddie McKenna

Eddie McKenna is co-owner of Heyday Elite Fitness. For more info, visit