“I want to be racing in the race. I don’t want to be on the sidelines watching.”
Joan Lunden is a beloved journalist, author, speaker, and health advocate, who for almost 20 years was an admired host on Good Morning America. She has always been a trusted and informed voice, with a particular interest in improving women’s health. Her latest book continues this mission, exploring aging—with humor, empathy, and lots of helpful information. It is called, Why Did I Come into This Room? A Candid Conversation about Aging (2020). This is one strong, gutsy woman, who lives life to the fullest and who enjoys helping others do the same. I am so very happy I had a chance to speak with the incomparable Joan Lunden for Maine Seniors Magazine.
How has it come to be that you spend a lot of time in Maine? And what area are you in?
My husband, Jeff Konigsberg, has owned summer camps in Maine his whole life. The main camp that he bought when he was 27 years old is Camp Takajo. It’s in Naples, Maine. It’s on Long Lake, so just off of Sebago Lake. It’s about 27 miles west of Portland.
In 1947, when that camp was first started by a gentleman named Morty Goldman, Jeff’s dad, Donnie Konigsberg, was the very first camper at Camp Takajo. (Back then, in those days, they slept in tents, like just regular tents. I mean, it’s very different today, obviously.) When it came time that Jeff was of camp age, eight years old, he started going there.
Later, Jeff became a group head, head of basketball, and finally the assistant director. When he graduated from Lehigh University, Morty Goldman who founded and owned it, was ready to retire and sold it to Jeff. So, Jeff has been there every summer on the grounds of Camp Takajo, every summer since he was eight years old, and he just turned 60. He bought that camp. Then, about 20 years ago, maybe a little longer, he bought the sister camp, which is in Poland, Maine. That’s called Tripp Lake Camp, on Tripp Lake in Poland, Maine. It’s an all-girls camp, and Takajo is an all-boys camp. They are traditional seven-week camps.
When kids come there, they’re finishing first grade, so around age 7, through to around age 15. When I met Jeff, I started going up to Maine, and he said, “I hope you’re going to like it up here because this is my passion. This is my vocation. I’m not changing.” Of course, it’s just such a beautiful place. We built a home. We were able to get property right on the water right next to the cove that is Camp Takajo. I spend my summers—June, July, and August—up there. It’s really, I guess I would say, my happy place. There’s this dock out onto this beautiful lake, which is one mile wide and about 11 miles long. There’s a lot of activity, but it’s not so big. It’s not big like Sebago is.
We come up sometimes during the winter as well, from Palm Beach. We like to come up and go skiing at Sunday River. Yes, Maine is really a big part of our family.
When you’re in Maine, do you write? Have you ever written one of your books in Maine?
Yes, I wrote my latest book here! It is called, Why Did I Come into This Room? A Candid Conversation about Aging. I wrote the book because I think it’s very important for people to know, and especially women, that we age very differently than men, because of estrogen. The more we know and understand about our bodies and what’s going to happen, the more comfortable we can be with the aging process. It is good to be aware of the normal symptoms of aging, reasons why they’re happening, and even some takeaways as to what we can do about it because there are a lot of fixes. Because if you aren’t aware of all these things, all of a sudden, your waistline is gone overnight. And, of course, you can have the hot flashes, forgetfulness, facial hair, and all kinds of other developments.
When it just happens to you, you start to think, “Oh my God, am I breaking down? Do I need to go to the doctor about this?” It’s bad, psychologically, because it leaves women asking themselves, “Am I less feminine? Am I less appealing?” And eventually you get to, “Am I less relevant?” It’s a terrible path, I think, to go down. That’s why I wanted to learn as much as I could about the female body and the changes that it goes through as we turn 40, 50, 60, and 70 and so on, so that women could find some solace in the fact that they didn’t do anything wrong to themselves. These things just are natural aging symptoms. They happen to every woman.
That alone takes some of the scary out of it, so you are not left feeling like you’ve done something wrong. I mean, a little-known fact: Women have, by nature, fat cells on their thighs and hips, because we’re standing ready for childbearing. It’s the way our bodies were designed, so to speak. However, our bodies are really smart, and when the estrogen is gone, those fat cells know that they’re not needed there anymore, and they migrate to our abdomen. That is why all of a sudden you see that you have no waistline anymore. Most of us think, “Oh my God, did I eat too many Tostitos last year or what?” It’s really not that.
Of course, now we know God wasn’t a woman because she would never have done that to us.
Ha! Now, can you share an example of something you learned about women’s health that you put in the book?
Well, I learned that any fat above your belly button is the most dangerous fat, any fat that’s near to your heart, or it can get into your organs and become what’s called visceral fat, that you really have to pay attention to. The takeaway is that you can lose about eight pounds and take an inch off your waist, but there’s another fun fact, most doctors don’t measure your waistline. Have you ever had a doctor take out a tape measure?
Me neither. Yet, the waistline measurement is one of the most important measurements we should know. It’s one of the best predictors of cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes. It shouldn’t be more than about 35 for a woman or 40 for a man. Then in the book, I go on and some talk about some of the things that you can do to try to remedy this situation, as needed. I mean, knowledge is power. Knowledge lets us feel more comfortable with ourselves, our bodies, and our later years.
How did you get writing about health?
Believe it or not, when I was at Good Morning America for two decades, we didn’t have laptops. We didn’t carry around our phone getting emails all the time. A guy came to our house every evening, a messenger, and brought me reams of paper, research for the stories I was going to do the next day. And you read your research, you read endless piles of paper.
Then when I left Good Morning America, right about that time, and it was 1998, we all started getting our own laptops. So I started a website, and I remember I had a company helping me to set it up. And they said, “What do you want to call it?” Immediately, I just said, “Well, Joan Lunden’s Healthy Living. That’s going to be it.”
So for instance, when I was still at Good Morning America, I had gone through a big weight loss. I had three daughters, and it’s that extra 10 or 15 pounds that you maybe don’t completely lose after each birth. I found myself turning 40, and I just said to myself, “I’ve got to lose this weight” because I have to be fit. In 20 years, I want to be racing in the race. I don’t want to be on the sidelines watching. Then I really took it on as another job. And by discovering my fitness, I think I really changed my life. I changed the trajectory of my life. I mean, my gosh, I ended up marrying a guy 10 years younger.
When I was 29 years old, I got married. And I married a guy who was 39. Three great kids, but it didn’t work out. Well 20 years later, when I was 49, I got married again. And again, I married a guy who was 39.
The second 39-year-old worked out much better. But I think that when I went through that—I don’t want to call it weight loss, when I went through that journey to fitness—everybody wanted me to talk about it. Of course, they all wanted to know what was the secret pill.
And finally, my girls, my three older girls who are now all in their 30s, they said, “Mom, just write a book already, so people will stop asking.” So I wrote a book called Healthy Cooking. And it was a huge hit, a big New York Times best seller. I followed it up with Healthy Living. And then I wrote one with a pediatric nutritionist called Growing Up Healthy. All the books—this latest book is my 10th book—all along the way have all been about either healthy living or about wellness and happiness.
I’m not an expert. I’m not a fitness trainer. I’m not a nutritionist. I’m not a psychologist with a degree. But I’ve found that I’m a disseminator of information. I’m the interlocutor between the people that have all the answers and the people who are watching me on TV or reading my books.
The more you are down to earth and share your own stories, the more you’re authentic and real, to me the more successful the end product is.
Great title on this latest book! We’ve all had those moments of “Why did I come into this room?” Did you purposefully use humor to help people see they are not alone in their struggles?
I had to give myself permission to write with a sense of humor and to be authentic about things that are so intimate and personal. I remember one day, my husband walked through my office here at the house, and he said, “What are you working on today, honey?” I said, “I’m working on leaky bladders.” And he said, “Oh, yeah. But you can’t actually say it like that, right?” I said, “Are you kidding?” The title of the chapter is ‘Sometimes I laugh so hard, tears run down my leg.’” He gave me that skeptical look—“Are you sure you should be using this approach?” But by using humor, it’s engaging. And it allows you to read the important stuff because it’s all wrapped up in fun stories.
I think that approach and that information is so needed. What has the response been to the book?
It became a New York Times best seller in its first 24 hours or so! But it’s interesting because these days I hear from my 75,000 BFFs on Facebook that I don’t actually know. And I’ve gotten so much great feedback. Interestingly, I’ve heard from a bunch of men who said to me, “My wife’s been reading your book and she’s been laughing and laughing. So I picked it up and I just read it. And I thank you because I now feel like I know and understand my wife so much better.” And I loved that.
Because all of a sudden, these men realized, what the women, the loves of their life, were going through. And a lot of other women who have daughters say, “I’m giving this book to my 20 something-year-old because I want her to know what’s coming down the pike, and things she can do to prepare for that and make the inevitable life changes be a little bit better, a little bit easier.” So, it’s so gratifying when you spend three to four years on something and then you get great feedback.
Where do you get your inexhaustible positive energy?
Well, I’m definitely the glass half full kind of girl. Both my mom and my dad had positive energy. I mean my dad was a doctor, saving lives, but my mom was living with Gandhi. She was a guru of positive thinking, and she constantly gave me positive affirmations, which I think is really important in parenting.
And I’ve got my three older girls, who everybody that watched Good Morning America saw me have and raise those three older girls. Now they’re all married! And two of them have children themselves. It’s so wonderful to watch them be mommies. Then I have four teenagers. I have two sets of twins. One set is 18, one set is 16. They’re all just getting their licenses and cars! My son had his prom last weekend. My daughter has hers, because they’re in two different schools, this coming weekend. So I’m doing it all over again.
But I must say second time around is much easier because you definitely look at situations when they’re rolling their eyes at you and you think, “All right, I’ve been down this path. And I know that right now, I’m the dumbest, most annoying person to you, but I know that in about three years, when you’re away at college, you’re going to come back and realize that your dad and I are actually a lot smarter than you thought.” That perspective helps.
What other differences have there been, raising the four younger kids?
I can tell you what the one big difference is: the phones. My older girls didn’t have to contend with social media and phones, being constantly connected. Now, I watch this younger generation go through it, and it was much easier before. Just think about us. When school was over, we went outside and played. It was such a different world. I think it’s much more stressful for them now at this time.
How do the summer camps handle the phone issue?
One of the things about coming up to Maine to camp is no phones are allowed. And it’s the best thing in the world for these kids to be disconnected for seven weeks because believe me, it is not something that any of their parents could pull off. Parents are so happy that their children have that chance to disconnect from the phones, reconnect with nature, feel the sun and wind, be with their friends in person, right there and then, and play.
I remember at the end of the summer a couple summers ago, my daughter who’s now just turning 18, she said, “Oh man, summer camps over. That means I’m going to have to reconnect again.” And she said, “It’s so stressful,” even though it is almost like they want those phones surgically adhered to their hands. We don’t allow phones at the table, at the dinner table. But sometimes I’ll see that they have the phones in their hand, under the table. It’s like, “Really? You can’t even just put it down for the length of the meal?”
It’s a great thing seeing young people at camp in the summer, just out in the lake and playing. What I love about Takajo is that it’s got these beautiful, huge, big trees, evergreens, and they’re massive. The whole place makes me think of that book, Earthing (2014), by authors Ober, Sinatra, and Zucker, about the deep health benefits of when you walk in nature and connect with the ground. I am my absolute fittest and in my best shape every summer. I always come back in the fall, and I say, “Let me go have my physical right now because this is the best you’re going to get me.”
You keep trying new things. How does that habit fit in with what you’ve learned about aging?
One of the messages I wanted to get out in the book also is to keep having new experiences. There used to be t-shirts that said, “He who has the most when he dies, wins.” Well, it’s not. He who has, in my opinion, experienced the most in life and who has allowed themselves to experience the most in life wins. And these days, when we’re all living 20, 30 years longer than anyone would have dreamed of, I think it’s really important to embrace the importance of reinventing ourselves and being open to opportunities because age is a funny thing in this Western society of ours.
We tend to think—because we’ve been programmed to think—that as we turn 50, that we become “over the hill.” You turn 60, and you’re supposed to retire and not do anything. You turn 70, and you’re supposed to be an old person. That’s just not true in today’s world at all.
If we just keep that open mind and don’t say to ourselves that we can’t do something anymore because of our age, then that opens us up to so many wonderful opportunities.
We all need to keep life interesting and exciting because that’s how we keep ourselves vibrant and full of vitality as we pass through the decades.
And listen, they say that the best thing to do to stave off cognitive decline is to stay engaged and keep learning, and if you can, to engage with younger people.