Exercise and Aging

with Eric Levitan,

Founder and CEO, Vivo

This week on Art of Aging, host Michael Hughes chats with Eric Levitan, Founder and CEO of Vivo. During this episode, Mike and Eric discuss the importance of exercise, particularly strength training, for older adults. Eric explains that consistent strength training can help maintain independence and quality of life, and his company, Vivo, offers an online, live, and interactive small group fitness program designed for older adults with a focus on building strength. Topics also include exercising for your age and stage of life, why consistency matters, and more.
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Highlights from this week’s conversation include:

  • Exercise at any age (0:07)
  • The importance of cognitive exercise and social engagement (3:39)
  • Vivo’s focus on building strength (5:37)
  • The importance of muscle mass as we age (9:24)
  • It’s never too late to regain strength (10:49)
  • Starting small (16:38)
  • Building a personalized fitness program (18:14)
  • Challenging yourself in exercise (21:13)
  • Technology adoption in fitness (22:45)
  • Connecting with Eric and Vivo (28:20)


Abundant Aging is a podcast series presented by United Church Homes. These shows offer ideas, information, and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. To learn more and to subscribe to the show, visit abundantagingpodcast.com


Michael Hughes 00:07
Hi there, and welcome to The Art of aging, which is part of the abundant aging podcast series from United Church homes. On this show, we look at what it means to age in America and in other places around the world with positive and empowering conversations that challenge, encourage, and inspire everyone everywhere to age with abundance. Today, we’re excited to have Eric Levitan with us from Vivo. And Eric, you’re here as part of what we’re calling our aging innovators series. And today, we’re gonna be talking all about exercise, specifically exercise past the age of 65. dispelling the myths, which you certainly have a lot of background about. And I want to get into vivo and what it does. But because we are talking about exercise, when we’re talking about exercise, when you’re older, our lawyers have asked to say that our conversation here is our opinion. And please check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen, changing your exercise regimen, regimen, and all that other good stuff. So now we can speak freely. Just start by telling us about your background. Why are we here talking to you about exercise, and especially exercise past the age of 65.

Eric Levitan 01:15
Sure. And that’s wonderful advice, by the way, to always consult with a doctor before you start any exercise program. But thanks so much for having me on, Mike, I’m very excited about the ability to talk to you and the listeners about the power of exercise in general, which I think for a lot of us, it’s sort of known right? We all know that exercise is good for you. But really delving into the science behind exercise and specifically, as we age, how it becomes why it becomes so important. And then even more focus is where we are bringing to the table from a vivo perspective with a real focus on building strength. And so I’m excited to talk to the listeners. And really my background is in entrepreneurship. I have a fairly robust background in technology and software, and was fortunate enough to be a part of a software company where I was able to exit and, and sell to a large organization, which gave me the flexibility to really get introspective and figure out what I want to do with my life. And at that point where I was really trying to think about what I wanted to do next, I knew that I wanted to have a significant impact on someone else’s life, I didn’t just want to create software that would help run a business, I really wanted to do something and felt really compelled to do something that would improve the quality of someone’s life, and at the time, became an observer to what was happening to my own parents. And I think for so many of us who get into this space, it’s watching someone that we love go through the aging process. And that’s exactly what happened in my situation. My parents were in their mid to late 70s, they started going through a fairly precipitous decline in their quality of life, which I soon found out to be quite typical of that age. And my mom started having a series of falls. And I kind of threw myself into the literature into the research. And I really started this journey on what does it mean to age and why do falls happen?

Michael Hughes 03:13
Right? And he came up with vivo. And we’re kind of burying the lede here, because, you know, vivo, it’s an exercise program. It’s an exercise program, as I understand it for anybody at any age, I’m sure you’ve got a program, it’ll kick my butt, you know, but you’re combining not just physical exercise, you’re combining physical and cognitive or brain games together at the same time, right? That’s kind of the magic mix, right?

Eric Levitan 03:39
Yeah. And that’s, you know, such an important element is, the more we looked into, and really understood around exercise and aging, and where to really place emphasis, the more we started realizing that, look, it’s not just your physical strength, and your bone density, and your balance and your proprioception, and some of these things that we all talk about a lot, but it’s around cognition, too. And so, and it’s about connectedness, and social connectedness and feeling a part of a broader community. And so can you bring in all these different elements into one program that really serve as you know, ultimately, at the end of the day, and we’ll talk about this a little bit later, the foundational element, if you want to exercise and see improvements in your life, whether it’s around preventing a disease, managing a disease, or just being able to do activities of daily living and maintaining your independence. It’s all about consistency. And so understanding that anything you do, it has to be done consistently. How do we drive consistency, and it’s all about behavioral change. And so really diving into the science behind behavioral change, and connecting with other human beings and making it fun and, and bringing in some of these other elements. Those all went into the genesis of how we created this program.

Michael Hughes 04:55
And I got to say, I can definitely sort of see the direction I mean, I’m an orange theory free Get a solid core free, that’s a there’s a, but when those have in common is group exercise with other people that motivating factor, or sorry, brings in some gamification with the way that your heart rate goes up and down and things like that it really is a nice for somebody like me pretty, pretty sticky that that kind of a program. So I’m getting three components. You’ve got the physical exercise part, you’ve got the Brain Gain cognitive exercise part, then you’ve got the social engagement part of it too, right? And how are those kind of tuned to people’s levels, they’re engaging in an exercise program that vo brings out.

Eric Levitan 05:37
So maybe it will be helpful if I can give just kind of a basic understanding of what we do, then answer that question in the context of how we deliver this program. So vivo is an online but live and interactive small group fitness program really designed for older adults, and with a real focus on building strength. And the important thing to unpack from that kind of wordy statement is one, we do have this emphasis on building strength, which is really, in response to the fact that we all lose muscle mass as we age, every single person on the planet. It begins in our 30s, which is terribly depressing. And it’s a progressive condition, it actually accelerates as we get older. And that condition is generally referred to as sarcopenia. And I can remember the first time I heard the word sarcopenia, I thought may spell

Michael Hughes 06:28
The word sarcopenia.

Eric Levitan 06:31
S-A-R-C-O-P-E-N-I-A. And the first time I heard it, I thought it was an island off of the coast of Italy, it is not

Michael Hughes 06:41
Yes, sarcopenia is great this time of year, yeah, that’s a wonderful place

Eric Levitan 06:44
to visit, it’s actually a terrible place to visit, because it, you know, correlates to a loss of mobility, and function as it relates to this progressive loss of muscle mass. It’s literally something that happens to everybody, regardless of your gender, of where you live on this planet. And so knowing that, and then kind of continuing down that path, it’s responsible for so much of what we do on a daily basis, as we age, standing up out of a chair, getting up off of the floor, reaching up and grabbing something, this is all using our strength. And as we lose that ability, we lose our ability to do activities of daily living, but it’s so much more than that. It’s what contributes to falls. It’s what contributes to a number of diseases of aging, from type two diabetes, to osteoporosis, to cardiovascular disease, to hypertension, etc. It has got this really significant negative impact on our lives, the fact that we are losing muscle mass as we age. But the amazing thing, Mike, that I would love for everybody to walk away from this podcast knowing is, there’s something we can do about it. Aging does not need to equate to physical decline. But it requires a little bit of work. And that work is actually referred to as strength training, or occasionally resistance training. And it’s really the challenge of our muscles on a consistent basis to maintain our strength so that we can ward off these diseases, we can prevent falls, and we can maintain our independence and quality of life. So that’s our core thesis, Mike is we’re really about strength training. But we do it in such a way that we want to make it accessible to people. We know it’s intimidating to go into a gym and be surrounded by 20 year olds and tank tops, you know, pumping iron. And so that’s not the end, there’s a lot of barriers to even putting yourself in that position. You have to get in your car and deal with traffic. And depending on where you live with the weather, being able to join a program online, remove so many of those barriers, and then doing it as a live and interactive small group gets to the heart of what your question was all about, which is we have the ability to connect people through this very fun, socially engaging experience, which is why we lean into, it’s not a video. This is not a one way live stream like a peloton. This is a small group, a live and interactive experience where a trainer has eyes on you, they’re keeping you safe, they’re correcting your form, they’re making sure that they’re modifying an exercise if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort. And at the same time, it’s a big enough group that we’re really focusing on the social engagement aspect of this. So this is a core kind of component of

Michael Hughes 09:23
what we’re all about. Yeah, I mean so many things are swimming through my head right now Eric, as you say that so I mean the structure of the program, got it. But just going back to this idea of muscle, right? I mean, I was always taught that you know, an extra, you know, a lot of people do a lot of cardio with they may not pay attention to the muscle, a lot of people will pay a lot attention to the muscle and not the cardio, but in you know, in terms of building the muscle media, I was always taught that your muscle are, the more muscle you have, the more calories you’re burning, right but your muscles are also aside from just getting around there. They also might be filters or strainers for all sorts of bad stuff in your life or disease. So this or that, I mean, the more muscle you have, I guess the

Eric Levitan 10:03
better for sure, for sure. And there is such a direct correlation between what you just said and specific diseases. Muscle Mass helps regulate blood sugar. It’s one of the, you know, one of the reasons that type two diabetes is a disease of aging is because we’re losing that ability as we get older. And osteoporosis, the loss of bone density is a direct reflection of stopping putting a load on our bones, because we are losing muscle mass. As we lose muscle mass, it’s often replaced by fat, which leads to cardiovascular disease. And so all of these things are related to our ability to maintain our muscle mass and our strength in our function. And so it’s such an important thing for people to recognize,

Michael Hughes 10:48
yeah. But here’s the thing, though. I mean, when you’re talking about people at that age, there’s this sense that, you know, building muscle is kind of like building muscle, and then boom, now I can’t work out anymore. And it’s not possible for me to build muscle or build flexibility or to do I mean, can you build muscle? And can you improve flexibility in NIH,

Eric Levitan 11:14
you really can. And some of the real landmark studies that really established the science around this, which were, which are really from the 80s, looked at individuals who were in their 90s, in nursing homes, and then lost much of their mobility and their function, and put them through 12 weeks of 45 minute, three times a week strength classes. And the difference that they saw in their lives was nothing short of dramatic. And it was well established then and continued to be established and reinforced over and over again, through countless studies that show it is never too late to regain strength and function. And so that’s a really important thing. Because I think for a lot of us, especially as we age, we tend to fall into that trap, which is, I just can’t do this anymore. I’m so deconditioned, that there’s no point in me starting, or if I did, I’ll get hurt, or I’ll just embarrass myself, or worse. And I think it’s a really important thing for as we had this conversation, and more and more people talking about this, especially within the healthcare system, right? Because so often, we rely on our physicians on our doctors on our primary care physicians, or geriatricians, or endocrinologists, or the PTS, to pass on that wisdom. And I think in a lot of cases, cardiovascular health is really at the top of the discussion. And we talked about the importance of walking. But there’s not enough people really sharing that awareness and education around how important it is for us to maintain our strength, and the fact that it isn’t too late. And so those are just some myths that I think are very common, which are, this isn’t really for me. And in fact, this is probably the single most important thing that we can all be doing as we get older.

Michael Hughes 13:01
Yeah. And it’s not, you know, I guess when we say we’re gaining strength, we’re getting flexibility. I mean, this is gaining strength and flexibility for you for where you are in life, for where you are in your current situation. It’s not about being as strong as you were in your 20s. Or it’s not about being Arnold Schwarzenegger, is not it? This is improving strength and flexibility for you, right.

Eric Levitan 13:24
Yeah, that’s such an important point, Mike, because I think we all have that connotation of when we hear the word strength training, we think depending on your age of Arnold Schwarzenegger, right, that is our vision that is our model of what strength training is. And I think that’s doing a disservice to us all that we aspire, or think that that’s what strength training looks like. Strength training is really just challenging our muscles to be able to do the things that we enjoy doing. And so one of the most basic strength training X moves that you can do as what’s generally referred to as a squat. A squat can take different variations, an unsupported squat can be a squat, while you’re holding weight too, to create more resistance, but it can also be standing up from a chair. And look, that is one thing that every single person on the planet does, dozens of times a day. And being able to do that well with a high degree of confidence and a low degree of pain and discomfort is really important. Because when you lose your ability to stand up from a chair, that’s where you really lose your independence. And so backing it up from there really thinking about the core things that maintain our independence that maintain our ability to do activities of daily living. This is what we’re talking about. And every exercise that we built into the vivo program has a real purpose for what you do on a daily basis. Whether it is getting out of a car, walking up a flight of stairs, carrying a bag of groceries, standing up off of a chair and getting off of the floor, reaching out grabbing something from a cabinet above, that’s what this is about. This isn’t about, you know what your maximum bench press is, or how you’re going to look in a tank top. It’s really about maintaining your function so that you can maintain your independence and your quality of life.

Michael Hughes 15:15
You know, we just filmed a series of shorts. It just the other week at the design house in Columbus, Ohio, or his whole showcase for senior mosaic design studios plug for them, does it but in the middle of this mansion is 19th century mansion that was owned by the rubber boot king of the United States, believe it or not, because Ohio seems to be the Silicon Valley of the states from 1900. There’s this beautiful grand staircase that they have. And I’m like, Well, gosh, shouldn’t it shouldn’t this be a ranch house? No stairs are important. Stairs are important for people no matter what age they are, because it’s just that habit of engaging those muscles. Right? That’s right.

Eric Levitan 15:53
That’s right. And stairs are a wonderful strength training example of what we don’t necessarily think of as strength training. But there’s so much of your lower body strength that is required to navigate stairs, in addition to balance. And, again, I think far too often, we’re so quick to put that behind us and move into the sedentary, you know, part of our life. And the more that I mean that we use that expression lucidly, you know, it’s so trite, we all know it, but it is absolutely true. And so the more that you can engage in movement, the more that you can continue to challenge yourself, whether it’s stairs, whether it’s, you know, real dedicated strength training and physical movement. And being intentional about it. That’s what this is all about.

Michael Hughes 16:37
Well, yeah. And then I’m just gonna remind people again, you know, do check in with your doctor on this, do check in with someone because, you know, we think about all the components of a good lifestyle, you know, cardio strength, flexibility, diet, you know, those elements, but it we’re going to actually pick up and pick us up in another episode, but talking about how the importance of form, the importance of doing exercise, that’s right, for you even starting small and building gradually, things like that. I mean, I guess one of the big things that you might hear about is like, oh, no, I can’t do that I’m gonna get hurt.

Eric Levitan 17:09
And that’s love. Yeah. So that’s one of the things that we really leaned into significantly when we were creating this program is we built out this level system, because the reality of the situation is every single older adult, the state of their current wellness, function, mobility, it’s all very complex. What we see often is multiple comorbidities, someone may have type two diabetes, and osteoporosis or osteoarthritis, and an artificial knee. Or maybe they’ve got mild cognitive impairment, and they’ve got lower back pain and dysfunction. There are so many variations of this, that having another human being that’s a part of this equation is really important. And even more so than the complexity of a given individual. That complexity gets even compounded on a daily basis, because sometimes you wake up and you don’t feel the same. Right? Maybe you slept wrong, and your neck hurts two days ago, but now you do. And one of the challenges of any fitness

Michael Hughes 18:09
and that problem the other day, yeah, why is my lower back hurting so much? Today, it did yesterday.

Eric Levitan 18:14
And that happens to everybody. That’s not an exception, right? That’s almost the rule is you wake up, and occasionally you just feel a little bit different. And so having another human being that’s a part of this equation, that’s a part of this solution that can help you through that, because it’s not intuitive. And it’s not necessarily always so obvious what you should do about that. So this is where we’ve actually built out this program to be fairly robust. And we’ve got, essentially, level one through level four of every single exercise that we do, and we are very intentional about a person does not equate to a level, because this is what we see a lot is someone may have really strong lower body, but have some issues on that with their shoulders, that causes them not to be able to do as much from an upper body perspective. And vice versa. Someone else may have a really strong upper body but have significant knee issues or neuropathy in their feet, that causes them to not be able to do such aggressive, you know, exercise on their lower body. And so we’re constantly working with our members, and trying to make sure that they have found the level that’s appropriate for them on that day for that exercise.

Michael Hughes 19:27
And that’s really important, because again, on that day for that exercise, that’s okay, great. Got it.

Eric Levitan 19:31
And that’s a critical element. Because if you’re not really individualizing, this is enough, personalizing us enough for you, that’s where people start to get into trouble. And that’s where exercise kind of gets a little bit scary for people or develops a bad reputation if people try to do something that’s not appropriate for them. Something I love to do. I speak a lot on the importance of strength training as you age. And something I love to do in a room of older adults is say raise your hand if you can do a push up. and you’ll see a smattering of hands go up, maybe a couple, and I’ll respond and say, Actually, everybody in this room can do a push up, just not the kind of push up that you may be thinking about. Because when we say the term push up, we all have a vision of us getting to the floor, and lowering our chest to the floor and pushing ourselves back, you know, on our hands and toes. And that’s just one form of a push up. And in the vivo vernacular, that’s actually a level four push up. But you can back that all the way up, maybe you can’t do that. But maybe you can get to the floor and do a knee push up. But maybe you can’t even get to the floor, maybe you can do a push up off the back of a chair or a countertop, where your body is at an angle, but you don’t have to get to the floor. And then a level one push up is you can just stand against a wall and extend your arms and push yourself away from the wall. And the further you step your feet away from the wall, the more challenge and more resistance that creates, and almost everybody can stand next to a wall and push and extend their arms and push themselves away. And that’s also a push up. So helping people find what’s appropriate for them, what, where they have an ability and a comfort level. And then the second part of this is we want to progress people down this path. Because that’s where you see, that’s where a

Michael Hughes 21:13
a lot of us give people a lot of confidence, right? Once they do that one thing, and suddenly it’s a, it opens a door. And you know, it allows them to step forward and try more things.

Eric Levitan 21:24
That’s exactly right, Mike is giving people the confidence and the form, right. So they learn how their body moves in space. They learn what they’re capable of doing that they can get, do well, and then we want to start to challenge them. Because like anything in life, without challenge is what creates results, whether it’s physically, whether it’s emotionally, whether it’s mentally, right, we have to challenge ourselves on a regular basis, to see that progress to see those outcomes. And so what we want to do is create a foundation of comfort and confidence, and then start to push that needle so that we’re getting people to begin to challenge where they’re at. Because that’s where we start to see a really impactful difference. And it’s amazing to say,

Michael Hughes 22:09
well, you know, the last question I have for this podcast, and we’re going to do a couple more listeners, so please tune in for more your tech focus platform, you know, there’s a trope out there, older people can’t use technology, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I mean, my response to that is that, you know, at least the people we see, you know, moving, moving into, I don’t know, independent living that sort of they may have retired 15 years ago, but 15 years ago, in their office, they had a computer and probably the early smartphone and the internet and things like I mean, have you seen any issues with people, you know, using the earth tablets, or laptops or whatever, to kind of do the vivo program.

Eric Levitan 22:45
So it’s funny when we first got started, which was really at the beginning of the pandemic, we launched this program in April of 2020. And we had a team of people ready to on a moment’s notice, right? Someone’s joining a class if they’ve struggled to get, we utilize zoom from a technology and video conference technology platform perspective. We have a team of people ready to respond and help our members get into these zoom fitness classes. And they sat on their hands. And I won’t pretend to say that we don’t ever see issues, because of course we do. But they’re few and far between. And I think, you know, one of the blessings in disguise from the pandemic that we all experienced is it really accelerated technology, adoption, really across all kinds of demographics, and zoom in particular, and video conference technology became sort of ubiquitous and became this technology that became a necessity for our life to connect with our families and our friends, while we were going through this terrible time. And so what we have seen from Aviva perspective is, pretty much everybody has a real ability and capacity to get on a zoom call and participate in a vivo class, we do recognize that not everybody has had that experience. Not everybody has that comfort level. And so we built out as a part of that as we actually offer this thing to every new customer that joins, we offer something called a vivo SmartStart. And this is a one on one dedicated session where we help people get on to zoom, we look at their space to make sure it’s safe. There’s no tripping hazards, things like that. We walk them through some of the basics of the exercises that we’ll do. So they have an opportunity to get comfortable with them before their first class and really try to create a sense of ease and confidence. Because what we do know is that there is a barrier there is a hurdle between someone who is not exercising currently and taking that first step into exercising. And we want to ease that, you know, lower that hurdle as much as possible, because there is no disputing the science around exercise and the benefits it has for everybody but specifically as we age, and it’s really something that we all need to build into our lifestyle. And it will have a dramatic impact.

Michael Hughes 24:59
Eric: That’s just terrific. And, you know, at the end of each podcast, we like to ask our guests three questions. Now we’re doing three podcast listeners, you may be listening to these out of order, but there will be three, hopefully, barring some sort of terrible catastrophe. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to ask you one question for each podcast, maybe I want to pair this with something else. First of all, can you tell me just give me one story of someone that you’ve seen make progress in your program?

Eric Levitan 25:26
So I have a lot of stories.

Michael Hughes 25:29
And I know I want one.

Eric Levitan 25:32
One is hard. But I will give you one that is actually my favorite story, because it’s a personal relationship that I have my father in law, who is 81, or 82, and lives in Wisconsin, joined slightly reluctantly, as we were first getting started, and what we do with our exercises, we built out this program, we leverage a combination of bodyweight and we use resistance bands. So we send everybody there, like tubes with handles like that fairly substantial. And those are great, because you can really create a lot of resistance, but it’s gentle on the joints. And it’s very flexible in terms of what you can use. So we started this program with my father in law. And about six weeks in, he reached out to me separately and said, Can you send me new resistance bands? Mine don’t work anymore. And I was really confused, right? We’ve been sending these out for a long time. And they last a long time. But it’s like anything, maybe they have a micro tear, or that it just breaks. And so I was like, Did yours break? And he goes, No, they’re just not as they’re not providing as much resistance as they used to. And it was this. And literally my response to her was, “Do you think it’s possible that you’re getting stronger?” And to watch his response epiphany of recognizing what was happening, it wasn’t that the resistance bands had lost their resistance, right? In six weeks, that’s not happening. It was that he was seeing such a significant gain in strength, that these resistance bands felt less resistance to him. And it was a wonderful moment not of increased function. And we’ve got lots of those stories doing things that they weren’t doing before. We’ve got lots of those stories. But it was just the power of participating in a program like this and how quickly you see results and see real impact. And here was my father in law thinking that this equipment he was using was no longer working. And he was just getting stronger.

Michael Hughes 27:36
Well, you know what I think that’s, that covers three, question three that we usually ask, which is there’s someone you’ve met or been in your life, that’s a good example for you and aging. So I’m going to take that answer as an answer for that question. That’s terrific. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in for this episode of The abundant aging podcast, artists, eating innovators series, this time with Eric from vivo. And we want to hear from you. What has changed about you as the age that you love what has surprised you the most? How do you define abundant aging? What do you think of the subject of today’s show, and send us your feedback, just visit us at abundant aging podcast.com to share your ideas? Look us up on YouTube under United Church homes. And Eric, where can they find you?

Eric Levitan 28:20
So you can always go to Team vivo.com That’s T am vi vo like you’re a part of a team. When you join vivo, we really believe that you are joining this team. And we’re all in it together. And you can always sign up for a free class. We know that exercise can be a little bit scary, especially if you haven’t done it in a while. You can always sit in our free class and get an introduction. It’s more talking than moving, moving, excuse me, you’ll get a little bit more insight into what we do, how we do it, and actually leave having probably a pretty good time feeling a little bit better. And hopefully the confidence that this is something that you can do, and and we see it all the time. It’s pretty amazing.

Michael Hughes 29:00
That’s wonderful. Okay, so that’s team leivo.com abundant aging podcast.com We United Church. homes.org We are Ruth frost proctor center at the United Church homes.org/parker-center Check all those words. Eric, thank you so much for your time today, listeners. Thanks so much for listening. Keep an eye out for more of this great content. And again, send us Your show ideas and your feedback. Until next time.