Dr. Max Fuhrmann: 5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Can Dramatically Improve Your Wellbeing
Check your ageism at the door. Do your lower expectations and fears of aging play a role in preventing you from aging well? When one is over 75, it is easy to attribute pain to aging. When health problems are caused by aging, there is clearly no treatment other than death. If pain was literally a result of the aging process, then your whole body would hurt as well as all your body parts which are the same age. Visit a geriatrician and find out the source of the pain and possible remedies, as one would do when younger.
As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maximilian Fuentes Fuhrmann, PhD, ABPP.
Maximilian Fuentes Fuhrmann, is a clinical geropsychologist (a clinical psychologist who teaches and provides psychotherapy to older adults and their families). He seeks to empower elders (usually those 70 and older) to see themselves as wise, in a youth-oriented culture and to value themselves. He instructs on how to age well. Since the only treatment for aging is death, we might as well learn how to do it well!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?
To begin, I need to clarify that I work in the mental health field but am not qualified to speak on medical matters. As a clinical geropsychologist, however, my work touches on a great many biological/medical issues which are influenced by one’s mental health. Raised by my grandmother in what was essentially a geriatric family, as an undergraduate at USC, I discovered that the university housed the famous Andrus Gerontology Center. I had no idea that there was a whole field of study devoted to aging. I continued at USC to get my masters and doctorate degrees in clinical psychology and gerontology (one of two universities at the time offering a double major). Clearly, it can be inspiring for the young to realize that personal experiences can be turned into career opportunities that did not exist when they were growing up!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the most interesting or somewhat tragic stories is that I have turned away literally hundreds of clients from my private practice as there are so few psychotherapists who are trained or interested in working with older adults. I have never needed to pay for advertising or have a website. Most of the undergraduate psychology students I have taught are much more interested in working with children and adolescents., While the child/adolescent field is quite competitive for newly licensed psychologists, the interest remains low in geropsychology despite that the number of older adults has increased four-fold in the last century. This is also the case in geriatric medicine; in many U.S. communities there is one geriatrician for every 1000 older adults.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
On 9/11/2001, I had been asked to give a “how to improve your memory” lecture at a senior assisted-living facility. That morning, as the tragic news unfolded, the person who had invited me said, “The seniors need help adjusting to the trauma” and that I needed to give a talk on this. While feeling emotionally shaken myself, I cobbled together information from colleagues to provide training on what is called “critical incident debriefing.” After I started my talk, a few wheelchair-bound seniors interrupted me; raised their hands and informed me they had been waiting for two months to learn how to improve their memories. They told me they could learn about the 9/11 attacks on the radio and television. They said this event was “easier” than coping with the Pearl Harbor attacks as they now had visual images. It was clearly the younger staff (including me!) who were more traumatized and needed to process and vent about what had happened. I learned from this that we can profoundly underestimate the coping and adaptation skills of wise elders!
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field?
I saw my first older adult psychotherapy client in graduate school in 1982. I have been providing psychotherapy and teaching university courses in gerontology to students and other mental professionals for almost 40 years. In 2016, I was credentialed by the American Board of Professional Psychology in the new specialty area of geropsychology.
In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
My unique contribution can be providing a wealth of knowledge, much of it learned from my clients, about how to cope with, manage and embrace aging. This includes helping Individuals realize aging is a natural process which starts at birth. Actually, middle aged adults often say they are struggling to help their “aging” parents, when I believe they may struggle more to help their “aging” adolescents. The aging process is much more dramatic in childhood and adolescence than it can be in later life.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My grandmother was 62 when I was born and was my primary caretaker. Despite having an 8th grade education, she was a wealth of knowledge and showed a great athletic ability to play basketball, baseball and tetherball with me. She was an impressive role model of how to age well. She shared wise tidbits like “Frozen dinners are not good for you. The nutrition is all cooked out of them and replaced with unnatural ingredients which you can’t pronounce.” She was ahead of her time!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
1) Not appreciating that when humans are stressed, they crave high fat/high sugar foods, which is what is in mother’s milk. No one who is upset craves carrots and broccoli.
2) Believing that it is simple to change behavior. As a clinical psychologist I know that we must look at what is maintaining the behaviors we want to get rid of. If the immediate benefit for eating devil’s food cake is perceived greater than the future benefit of losing weight, most of us will eat the cake.
3) Appreciating that changing behavior is a very slow process. If we allow ourselves the cake once a week and have compassion when we eat it more often, we will likely not eat it as much. Many people trying to change behaviors expect them to change quickly and criticize themselves for failing. A person who has not exercised in years, will set an expectation they will go to a gym every single day. They will then feel despondent for not achieving the unreasonable goal and give up on exercising a few times a week.
Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)
- Compassion for failure. When one does not exercise, eat or sleep as one had expected/desired/or demanded, have self-empathy for the outcome. Empathy will open up the possibility of finding out more about what actually sustained the behavior you were hoping to ditch.
- Looking at what helped or did not appear to help your ancestors in terms of diet and exercise. We are learning that benefits of diet and exercise are influenced by genetics. If your great grandmother was overweight and lived to 95 then perhaps being a “normal” weight is not as critical as it might be for someone whose ancestors die young. Perhaps, your great uncle who lived to 100 was sedentary but was a great optimist. So perhaps, exercise is not as important for you as it might be for someone whose ancestors were pessimists (and died young).
- Check your ageism at the door. Do your lower expectations and fears of aging play a role in preventing you from aging well? When one is over 75, it is easy to attribute pain to aging. When health problems are caused by aging, there is clearly no treatment other than death. If pain was literally a result of the aging process, then your whole body would hurt as well as all your body parts which are the same age. Visit a geriatrician and find out the source of the pain and possible remedies, as one would do when younger.
- Try to provide a history to yourself of how your lifestyle came to be as it is now. What are the benefits you achieve from the so called “unhealthy” parts? Does not exercising help you to relax at home? Have you had pain from exercising before and then felt hopeless or negative about your body? Does eating comfort food help you cope with your work, financial or relationship stress? One can see how these benefits may be hard to give up in the short term or for a long-term goal of living longer. The old joke can be “but if one had to give up comfort food and exercise on a regular basis then who would want to live longer?? “
- Define “Wellbeing” for yourself. Don’t just accept what others tell you about it. What would wellbeing look like or feel like for you? As one becomes a wise elder, you are the expert on you. There are no books specifically on you. Ask yourself what is your mind and body telling you. What is wellbeing? For some, as John Muir wrote, “simply being in nature can help what ails you.”
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?
- Helping to slow age-associated muscle weakness, which is called sarcopenia. The less we move as we get older, the less we can move. It is “use it or lose it.” A great many physical and mental health conditions are related to disuse.
- Cognitive and memory health. We used to believe that exercising your brain was needed but it is now recognized that exercise from “the neck down” is even more important to keeping your brain awake and sharp!
- Having the energy and stamina to complete enjoyable tasks as one grows older. The more sedentary the one is, the more likely the “spirit may be strong but the flesh is weak” so one’s circle of living becomes smaller. One has less energy to engage in the outside world and depression, anxiety and even dementia may appear.
For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?
- Any kind of movement counts. Pick a realistic task — that is, one you are likely to do on a regular basis. Gardening, walking to the mailbox or putting out the trash. “Incidental” exercise can be great for those who hate to exercise.
- Gentle stretching borrowing techniques from physical therapy, qi gong, tai chi or yoga. As one ages, we can feel like the tin man in the Wizard of OZ needing his oil can. This can be especially true in the morning and evening.
- Mental exercises of challenging the mind from doing puzzles, watching game shows, sitting in a different chair or taking a different route home.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
The Jewel of Liberation: Essential Teachings on the End of Suffering by Jack Kornfield, who is a psychologist and Buddhist monk. Jack Kornfield is a great storyteller so there are many included here. One of my favorites is about letting go of expectation when one is a helper. Sir Thomas Merton, the Christian mystic, is quoted as saying that “one who is a giver should be prepared that when you extend your hand to help, you may pull back a bloody stump.” This is relevant to not becoming overly invested in helping others or putting our agenda on them. Many younger adults may believe that seniors need more help than they actually do (as evidenced in my 9/11 story). It is important to also look at our own motivations for helping others (e.g. feeling loved or needed) which may inappropriately attach us to the outcome.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movement of empowering the old. If we don’t die young we will all get there. Unlike racism, sexism and ableism, which may impact some of the population, agism can have a negative impact upon all of us. Aging is not a disease. Wisdom increases with age as does the ability to adapt and cope. Seniors can be a rich resource to the young.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life.
“All is Uncertain.” This quote from ancient philosophy reminds us that planning may be for naught. Seniors have taught me to “carpe diem” (seize the day). If one wants to do something, do it now, as tomorrow may not come or come in the manner one hoped or expected. The pandemic of 2020 has certainly taught us that.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
The Dalai Lama. I would enjoy just being in the presence of such a wise elder.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Watch my podcasts and read my books. They are on my website: Agewellwithdrmax.com
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!