What makes Olga run?: The mystery of the 90-something track star and what she can teach us about living longer, happier lives.

What Makes Olga Run is an engaging, informative and inspiring read about the international track star Olga Kotelko. At the time of the writing of the book, Olga was holding 26 world records, and had over 600 medals won at throwing, sprint, and jump events. This is quite impressive, but here is where things get really interesting: Olga is 95 years old currently, and she has taken up track-and-field at the age of 77! When award-winning Canadian writer Bruce Grierson met the astonishingly young-looking Olga a couple years ago, he had the same question that Olga awakens in many: “Seriously: When you’re breaking records, rather than hips, at an age most people will never live to see … what gives?” At his physical and mental nadir at that point in his life, Grierson decided to follow Olga and learn from her as much as possible about living healthier and happier, longer and better. The result is this book, which perfectly blends Olga’s life story with the latest on the science of optimal aging.

In seeking answers to explain Olga’s phenomenal success, Grierson leaves few stones unturned: He has her DNA tested, her brain scanned, and her muscles sampled; he examines her personality and studies her sleeping, eating, and training patterns. He turns to evolutionary theory to explain what makes Olga’s different habits particularly conducive to health, and talks to other masters athletes like Olga to detect some common patterns. Each of these attempts uncovers a part of Olga’s mystery and contributes to a sense of the key ingredients of aging well, if not the complete recipe. What are those ingredients?

Let’s start with her genetic constitution: To the extent it is possible to make such a judgment, Grierson concludes that Olga has good, but not extraordinary genes. Her diet, similarly, is fairly healthy, especially in comprising a lot of the foods that have been around for centuries and very little processed food. Yet it is far from what is depicted as ideal these days: She eats a lot, and a big chunk of her calories comes from carbs and animal protein (“I’ve seen her put back a meat soup, followed by a burger with two additional meat toppings” writes Grierson). She drinks copious amounts of water. She has solid lifelong sleep habits and the curious routine of massaging and stretching her muscles in the middle of the night in between two bouts of sleep. She doesn’t smoke, though she has a little bit of scotch now and then. All in all, her daily habits are healthy, and most likely healthier than those of many North Americans today, though not “textbook” healthy.

Olga is an athlete, and a large portion of the book is devoted to the fascinating science of how exercise can stave off the normal effects of aging. The studies presented on the quasi-miraculous benefits of exercise on health and well-being are so compelling that I had to put down the book and head to the gym for an intense workout (because, it turns out, intensity matters too!). The greatest predictor of longevity, by far, is whether or not you were born into a comfortable, well-educated family in a developed country. After reviewing the evidence, however, Grierson suggests that exercise is number two, eclipsing diet, occupation, or genes in importance. Exercise surely is a wonder drug that we all should take, but one caveat there: Even regular exercise cannot thwart the damage made by long periods of time spent sedentary in our desk- and car-bound lives. Grierson tells us that Olga moves a lot even when she is not training, and has done so all her life: Growing up on a Saskatchewan farm, she’d help her family with all the physical labor that comes with owning a farm in the 1920s and 30s, not to mention that she’d walk to school and back two and a half miles every school day.

Reflecting on what makes Olga the healthy, vital, happy nonagenarian that she is, Grierson admits: “I’m coming to think that more answers lie above the neck than below it”. Indeed, reading about Olga’s personality and attitudes, it’s impossible not to notice how she seems to embody everything the positive psychology literature has recently linked to thriving. To start with, for those familiar with the Big Five model of personality, she has a lovely profile, one that has been associated with many desirable outcomes: She is high in openness—she loves to travel, she paints, she gardens, is an avid player of Sudoku, and what is even more remarkable, she talks about picking up new hobbies in the future, like playing the piano. A relentless growth mindset and an insatiable appetite for self-improvement seems to pervade everything she does, leading her to ask herself constantly how she can enhance her performance.

Olga is also high in conscientiousness: She is very determined and goal oriented, and has high expectations of herself regarding things she has control over. When it comes to things she has no control over, however, she is not the worrier type (low neuroticism). She takes herself lightly and has a great sense of humor. Add to that mix high extraversion and very high agreeableness too. She is kind and friendly, and genuinely cares for people. Finally, she has a knack for seeing the silver lining in things (her faith in God helps) and is what Grierson calls a “realistic optimist”.
Lest you might think she had an easy, smooth-sailing life that allows her to be so positive and cheery, that’s hardly the case: Olga has survived an abusive marriage, which ended when her husband pulled a knife on her during one of his drunken rages. She was pregnant with her second daughter at the time. She gathered up her eight-year old daughter and their minimal belongings to flee into the night, to build a new life in the West. This was an exceedingly rare act in the 1950s Canadian prairie: “As far as I knew, I was the first single mom in the history of the world”, she says. Later, she also had to survive the untimely loss of her elder daughter to cancer.

Studies show that people with a strong sense of purpose, with the belief that one’s life is worth living, live longer. Olga appears to have that in abundance. She cares about the younger generation (after all, she was an elementary school teacher until her retirement) and wants to give back to the community as much as she can. “To inspire, that’s the name of the game,” she repeatedly says. And to inspire, that Olga does. The book recounts not only Olga’s story, but in the background also Grierson’s, who has been deeply inspired by Olga to successfully change his own ways. The love and respect Grierson has for her comes across very strongly, and only adds to the delights of the book.

If you are well-versed in positive psychology and keep up with the health/fitness/longevity research, this book will more confirm what you already know than teach you new things. But it is so well-researched and lucidly written, and Olga is so charming and fascinating, that I doubt you’ll regret reading this book. Perhaps we cannot all be Olga, but as Grierson also points out, “we can all be more like Olga.” This book will inspire and empower you to do just that.

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