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on January 14, 2014
Bruce Grierson's book What Makes Olga Run? presents an intriguing picture of Olga Kotelko, a Canadian who carries a ton of energy on her tiny frame. She is an athlete who has won a huge amount of medals in competitive track and field events. Those accomplishments are mentioned in such clarity as to provide inspiration to get moving. Add to Olga's athletic prowess the fact that she was born in 1919, and you have the stuff that makes for a fascinating narrative.

The thought occurs that Mr. Grierson's book title could have ended with a period instead of a question mark. Various reasons are offered for what is behind the energy that has kept Olga going. For instance, there is the hereditary factor. Some people carry in their genetic makeup a likelihood for longevity. There is the choice factor. Olga chooses to constantly keep moving. She chooses to drink enormous amounts of water. The book digs deep into those kinds of things.

Only recently have some things happened to indicate the possibility that it might not be much longer before there's an end to Olga's incredible story. As the book nears the end, Grierson briefly touches on a potentially serious health issue. And he writes of a fall down a flight of stairs not long ago. But on March 2, 2014, she will be 97. And if health adversities can be overcome by anyone, the person who is capable of survival is surely Olga. She is not a quitter. She made a wise choice to make the most of her life, regardless of her age. She does not want to roll over and play dead, yet is ready to accept the inevitable whenever it comes.

This can be viewed as an unconventional self-improvement book. If everyone followed Olga's daily regimen, certainly there would be many more nonagenarians among us. What is remarkable is that in her case, living well past 90 has been an enjoyable experience for the most part. In the very last pages of the book, the author presents nine rules that, if followed, are likely to get you much further down the road to enjoying the kind of rewarding longevity Olga has experienced. Those rules, which were noted by the author after he interviewed dozens of masters athletes over a four year period, are enough by themselves to read the book. What comes before those rules are presented will lay the framework for why they should be followed.

I was fortunate to have received this book for review from Goodreads First Reads. It is a surprising glimpse into the life of a North American that is well worth the time, whether one aspires to athletic prowess or not. Everyone can benefit by reading this book.
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VINE VOICEon January 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Using the story of a 90-year old athlete (narrated with a devotional/affectionate tone) as a powerful context, Grierson provides an excellent discussion on various topics related to aging and perseverance.

A narration that starts off as a biographical investigation quickly provides an excellent cover to discuss "adversity hypothesis" and how resilience in learnt. Some of the core concepts in this chapter are expanded in the more theoretical The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. The author then builds on the topic of physical resilience to introduce neuroplasticity, the role of exercise in mind performance, and the power of any exercise. The discussion of the types of experiments conducted to assess such hypotheses in itself is a worthy read. (In fact, the discussion is so lucid, it may even force a committed couch potato to amp up their activity levels).

The chapter on the role of evolution in fitness (its ten dimensions) and the framing of "endurance v/s performance" is probably the best-written. It provides a reader not only an excellent context to think about how our views of exercise and use of body, in general - has changed and challenges to think what activity types should be encouraged.

Of course, any discussion on seniors/aging, will be incomplete without addressing "nature v/s nurture". Grierson provides a realistic assessment of where genomics is in terms of able to understand aging. While the huge advances made in genomics and enabling personalized medicine need to be cheered, it is evident that we are still not very close to understanding the aging process or definitively answering aging/longevity tendencies for aging. The author also investigates the role of sleep, nutrition - and more importantly habits and personality (defined by the OCEAN traits)in aging, all along leveraging Olga as the chief protagonist.

While the story of Olga (and through her - a close view of the senior athlete community) in itself is an inspiring read, Grierson skillfully camouflages an excellent abstraction of current scientific understandings (exercise and diet, evolution, personality, genomics) in that story. That makes for a very informative and compelling read, despite the sometimes overly adulatory narration of Olga. Furthermore. the comprehensive view - systematically hypothesizing about all possible factors - as opposed to cheerleading a particular viewpoint on nutrition or genetics - is a very refreshing addition to the genre of aging. Excellent read.
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on January 29, 2014
What Makes Olga Run
One of my interests is longevity and closely tied to that is health.

I read an awesome book - What Makes Olga Run - The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives.

It is the story of Olga Kotelko who is breaking all kinds of seniors records in track and field. The story is made human by author Bruce Grierson who compares his decline (and he is perhaps 50) to Olga's seemingly non-decline. He is a great writer.

Nobel winner, James Watson, said "men of 50 do not like to fail - that is why they are so boring". Something to think about. Walk closer to failure to be more interesting.

My lessons from the book (some with my interpretations)

1 - Move. We are not designed to just sit. The Fitbit is perfect for keeping this in sight. Grierson tells of setting himself up in an easy chair complete with footstool as his work area. I, also, do this at night. This is bad. I need to look at a standup desk.

2 - Break a sweat every day. The Fitbit can lull one into thinking they are active but I can do my steps without ever breaking a sweat. It even counts as "very active" when I am just walking at a normal pace (perhaps 4 MPH). I am fairly good at this but need reminding.

3 - Lift weights.

4 - Sleep. I am really working on this one.

5 - Be an optimist. Not a fake optimist but a real one. This ties to "lighten up" - manage stress (the exercise helps).

6 - It is all about habits. Design ones that support health.

The final chapter has 9 rules. One that I like is "Don't do it if you don't like it". The last one is "begin now".

She is an inspiration.

Good companion reading for this would be another of my favourites - Younger Next Year.
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on November 4, 2015
I have no relationship with the author or his subject. Like many previous reviewers, I was interested in an overview of current scientific research into healthy aging. The author is a journalist who writes in an engaging, contemporary style. The problem is, many aspects of his approach are so unscientific that it undermines the credibility of even the wobbly conclusions he tries to make.

This extends to the fundamental premise of the book as expressed in the subtitle. What can we generalize from a lady track athlete that is so old that she literally has no competitors? As one geneticist is even quoted as saying, nothing! A basic principle of medical research is that trying to explain something after the fact, with a small sample size, is a recipe for misdirection. In this case, we are supposed to learn from a sample of one, with a very basic piece of information unvalidated: Olga doesn’t actually have a birth certificate! This reminded me of the historical hoax of the health secrets of Russian centenarians. As if to highlight the futility of his approach, the author expresses confusion over the contradictory health advice of other leading senior athletes.

Olga aside, the book could still have worked as a summary of present evidence regarding various lifestyle choices. But this always seems to be reduced to a glib minimum. There are no citations or endnotes. The bibliography of less than three pages consists largely of lay publications.

Throwing journalistic objectivity out the window, the author clearly forms a relationship with his subject over the course of several years. There is touching insight into how this may be his way of addressing the premature death of his father, but that should have been a completely different kind of book. Subject and author dine, go to track meets and even attend medical tests together. Strangely, considering the explicit mention of the importance of social ties in longevity, Olga’s own family remains largely voiceless. This is all the more striking considering that she lives in her daughter’s basement! Perhaps this omission has something to do with the fact that she has already written her own story elsewhere. To me, it just seemed creepy.

For a more objective attempt at reviewing the science of longevity, consider Spring Chicken by Bill Gifford. For a more light-hearted, well written treatment of the same subject, you may enjoy Drop Dead Healthy by AJ Jacobs.
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on August 29, 2014
Olga Kotelko was an elite masters track star who, upon her death in 2014, at age 95, held hundreds of gold medals in track and field, none of which she earned prior to her 77th birthday.

In What Makes Olga Run? Bruce Grierson jumps head first into the life of Olga to try to understand what makes her tick. What he finds is that this extraordinary woman is, by most metrics, not very extraordinary. There is no magic here. For readers looking for super foods, esoteric yoga mantras, or exotic training regimens you won’t find them here. Olga’s story is remarkable in how unremarkable it is. Grierson follows Olga through just about every test one can think of: stress tests, DNA analyses, diets, psychological examinations – in every case she comes out normal or close to it. But somehow, in Olga, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Olga is extraordinary. At 77, when most people are dead or dying, she hires a Hungarian track coach and begins a daily training regimen. She eats a nutritious but not remarkable diet. She loves competition. She loves to win. She was upbeat and refused to dwell on the dark side of things. Somehow all of that added up to a uncommon life of steady and satisfying accomplishment.

The book is not meant to be a text book. There are passages, especially concerning biology, that – in my humble opinion - could have been written more precisely. But precision in a book like this usually translates into boring. And the book is not boring. It is well written, reads easily, and is adequately documented.

There are three main take-aways:
1. What you already know about good health is true. Eat well. Exercise. Sweat a little every day. Enjoy friends a family.
2. Maintain a good attitude. Embrace optimism. Eschew pessimism. Keep a good perspective.
3. Your bad habits can be reversed. You can improve your heart health. You can enjoy time with your family again. Every decision, every step, every bite represents a fork in the road that leads to an end that you chose.

The author ends with Nine Rules for Living that summarize simplicity and health. But for him, ‘Olga’s biggest gift’ is a change in perspective. He records her advice:

Look around. These are your kids. This is your wife. This is your life. Its awesomeness is eluding you. Pay attention. Yes, there will come a time when you have genuine, life-threatening ailments. But, for now, stop your kvetching. And stop dreading birthdays that end in zeros. Those zeros can pull you under, like stones in your pocket. At your age, your story is not ending: you know that.

An uplifting read.
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on July 9, 2014
I liked the book because I'm an older person working to stay in shape. While I don't want to be a Master's athlete, it did reinforce all of the other books I've read about Cardio and resistance training after 70. I'm glad it is well researched but at times I wanted to skip ahead and just find out more about Olga.
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on March 6, 2014
I'm approaching 60 and my well-being is on my mind a great deal. I read this book because I don't want to hobble into and through my senior years. I want to run, roll in the grass, swing and play with my grandchildren. I want to enjoy doing things and going places and kick tail through those golden years. Olga's story was very enlightening and inspiring. Encouraging. Grierson tells it in an easy to read style, filled with fact and scientific documentation, but well laced with humor, humanity, and reality.
I'm ready to rock. Let's do it!
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VINE VOICEon February 27, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Olga Kotelko shatters preconceptions about age and aging. At ninety-one she is a track star, demonstrating almost unbelievable athleticism and stamina. Olga has attained both quality and quantity. She not only has a long life but one worth living. The author seeks to identify the factors that contribute to her vibrant, athletic longevity.

Of course, the author finds there are many components. A happy combination of attitude, exercise, and genetics seem to help. Olga's life has purpose and balance. She has a routine but is flexible.

This book is inspiring. It is a fairly easy read although parts, especially those dealing with the science of aging, are dull and drag. Still this is an eye opening account. Old age does not have to result in a decline into uselessness. If Olga's tale means anything, it demonstrates that life is what you make it. Recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon April 17, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )|Verified Purchase
Reading about Olga Kotelko, a woman who took up track "for fun" at age 77, was a revelation. This isn't just a book focusing on a gutsy woman who pushes the boundaries. It is also an invitation and a reminder that it is never too late to get moving and even to become a competitive athlete. If Olga can actually improve her speed and performance as she ages (in many cases breaking her own records from 2 years before) why can't the rest of us?

Author Bruce Grierson admits to some self interest in his sleuthing for the secrets behind Olga's amazing lifestyle. He'd been fit. He'd been a strong and committed runner. But by age 47 it all fell away as his stamina, memory and drive waned. He assumed this was part of his normal aging process -until he met Olga, an instant reality check.

But is she an exception? I don't think so. I've taken notes as I read and I plan to follow many of the habits she does. Exercising more, of course, but also changing my routines in other areas of life, from drinking more water to focusing on fun.

Perhaps Olga has a special genetic advantage. But the possibility remains that her longevity is as much about her refusal to believe that she can't be a strong and competitive athlete -even in her 90s.
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VINE VOICEon January 21, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Bruce Grierson does a marvelous job of presenting Olga, the athlete, Olga, the friend, Olga, the optimist, Olga, the mystery. Olga Kotelko is a 94 year old woman who competes in 12 Track and Field events without major injuries, and is always looking ahead to try new things. She still has plans to learn how to play the piano!

Along the way, Grierson discusses research about the slowing and fragility of the human body and how Olga (and other octogenarians) have shown that fading away quietly is not the fate of us all. He carefully looks at her genetic makeup, her personality traits, her outlook on life, and her persistent activity level that lets her not only take up competing in her 70's, but has made her physically stronger in her 90's. It is obvious how much Grierson likes Olga and is fascinated by her unique qualities.

This book could have been a bit dry, but Grierson has written a fascinating story of aging, with a delightful optimism that if we all just get moving, that we can individually transform out lives! I hope this book becomes a best-seller, because it deserves to be one!
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