If you’d told me nine years ago that I would morph into a fitness crusader who aims to inspire adults of all ages, I’d have laughed out loud.

I was just turning 70, and in terrible shape. My back was killing me, both knees were shot, and I was a good 25 pounds overweight. On top of that, my right rotator cuff was frozen. In short, I was a mess.

Well, here I am, nine years later, and in the best shape of my life. I weigh less than I did in high school. I’ve gone from being unable to do a single push-up — not one! — to doing sets of 50! And my chronic back pain? It has all but disappeared.

Between my gym workouts, speaking engagements, and interviews promoting my book, Just Move!, not a week goes by without someone asking me for advice. Often it goes something like “I want to get into better shape. What should I do, and how can I get motivated?”

Every time I hear those kinds of questions, I think back to the advice that jump-started my own transformation. It came not from a personal trainer or Men’s Health magazine, but from a good friend and neighbor several years younger than me.

Richard was a very successful lawyer in his mid-60s who happened to be a competitive triathlete. Somehow he found time in his jammed schedule for training and almost never missed a session.

He was getting ready for his next Ironman when his life and career were upended by a drunk driver. The doctors told him it was unlikely he would ever walk again. Those of us who knew him well put the odds in Richard’s favor.

Sure enough, after months of grueling rehab, Richard took a few halting steps. He kept it up and redoubled his efforts, pushing himself in twice-daily sessions that took every ounce of energy he had. A year after the accident, he was not only walking around the block, he was also back to swimming and getting ready to start bicycling again.

When, just after my 70th birthday, I was trying to map my own path to fitness, and feeling hopelessly stuck. I picked up the phone and gave Richard a call. Who better to ask for advice and help?

When he answered, I was suddenly tongue-tied. How could I bother Richard with my trivial problem after what he’d been through? But I finally took a deep breath and came clean.

“Here’s the thing,” I confessed. “I know I need to get off the couch and get serious about exercising. But to be honest, I hate going to the gym. I just can’t get into it. Maybe I’m just too old… or maybe I’m just not the gym type. How is it that you’ve been able to train and go through rehab without ever taking a day off? What’s the secret I’m missing?”

Richard chuckled before replying, “Oh yes, there is definitely a secret… and it’s one every Olympian and every other serious athlete knows.”

My curiosity whetted, I immediately started imagining what the secret might be. Some kind of arcane motivational coaching? Navy SEALs-type boot camps?

““It’s actually pretty simple,” Richard told me. “You’ve been thinking of getting in shape as a physical challenge. But in reality, it’s 70 percent mental, or maybe even more.” The silence at my end told him I was less than crystal-clear on his meaning.

“What I’m saying,” he continued, “is that if you want to get fit, you’ve got to clear your head of negative thoughts. Don’t worry about you can’t do — stay laser-focused on what you can do.

“If you do what you can, and give it your best shot, pretty soon you’ll be able to do more. And the more you do, the more you can do — and the more you will want to do it. That’s pretty much the whole ball game right there.”

Thanking him for his advice, I apologized again. “It just seems like the goal I want to reach is such a steep climb from where I am.”

“Hey, I know that feeling,” Richard replied. “I remember what it was like the first day I stood up in the hospital. And it’s true that if you really want to get fit and stay that way, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. But the only way to get there is by working on one short-term goal after another. Do what you can right now, today, and the future will take care of itself… so, good luck, my friend.”

As I headed to the gym the next day, my conversation with Richard was still echoing in my mind.

Had it changed anything? The best test would be the one exercise I dreaded the most: the push-up. The last time I’d tried it, the result had been total failure. I couldn’t do even one correctly.

I got into a plank position, took a couple of deep breaths, and told myself, “I can do this.” It wasn’t pretty, but somehow I managed to complete the motion without my belly sagging to the floor. I felt a surge of confidence that carried me into the gym two days later. Only this time I said to myself, “I WILL do a push-up, and then I will do another one.” The first one felt solid, and I was surprised when the second one came even more easily. I could see how doing five and maybe even ten might not be impossible, given some time.

Suddenly it all made sense to me. Confidence and resilience aren’t qualities you start with. You develop them by doing, with each accomplishment buoying you toward the next. If Richard could come back from a debilitating injury, I could rebound from my coach-potato ways. With him as a role model and my small triumph in the gym, I had a template I could use to succeed at any challenge in life, whether in the fitness realm or beyond. One conversation and two push-ups opened up my world.

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  • Jim Owen

    Author and Speaker

    James P. Owen is an inspirational author and speaker. His latest book is Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50 (National Geographic, 2017), which the Wall Street Journal named one of the year’s best books about healthy aging.  He is also the author of Cowboy Ethics. His current project is producing a half-hour documentary film, The Art of Aging Well. He can be reached via his website, justmoveforlife.com, or @justmovebook on Facebook and Twitter.