Wenxin Yang sat down with a very interesting man. Stephen Jepson a 74 year old mover. Check out his interview below.
I’ve had the absolutely pleasure of interviewing Stephen Jepson the other day. An ex ceramics professor, he now spends his days practicing, playing, and spreading the message of “Never Leave the Playground.” We had a wonderful conversation over the phone that I have transcribed into interview format below.
Hello, what is your name?
Stephen: My name is Stephen Jepson
What is your age and what do you do for a living?
I’m a professional speaker. And I’ll be 74 this coming birthday. At the present time, I have come up with a concept of training of the left and right side of the body, right and left hand, right and left foot, to do novel things on a regular basis for the rest of our lives and that’s what I’m paid to go out and share as a professional speaker around the world. I’ll be in Thailand pretty soon, but I’ve been flown to Denmark and many other places within the United States.
That is absolutely incredible! How do you think these activities can benefit people? Can you describe some of the benefits?
I know exactly what the benefits are! The little games that I’ve come up with create similar effects to the kinds of things that happened during our brain growth and physical growth from the moment we were born till when we left the playground. There was this constant doing physical stuff when we were younger which turned out to be very, very important to our overall health and our learning of all kinds of things, but we learned to use our right and left hands as we progress through life and what this does is whenever you learn something new with your right and left hand, right and left foot, it enriches the brain. It causes something called neurogenesis, which is the growth of new brain cells. And what I have done is come up with these playings and games that are supercharged in that it grows new brain cells because it encourages someone to become quite adept at manipulating things with their hands and feet.
Amazing! So do you believe that one can start these activities at any time and gain the benefits?
Absolutely! Absolutely! Right up until the moment you die you want to be training your right and left hand, right and left feet, practicing new things, because our brain thrive on the novel. We are drawn to the new. This is what I encourage people to do. For instance, I have people when they’re sitting, pick up marbles with their toes, and drop them in a bowl, with their right and left feet. When they become good at that, I have them stand up, with their hands on the back of a chair or around the back of a table so they don’t fall over, and I have them do the same thing. And when that becomes easy I have them put the bowl on the seat of a chair, and now they’re lifting marbles up 18 inches to 2 feet off the floor with their feet. And when that becomes too easy, I have them put the bowl on top of the table, and when that becomes too easy I have them put a patch on their eye; constantly ramping up the difficulty, constantly increasing the challenge of the little playings that they’re doing. I literally have dozens of these kinds of games that I encourage people to do.
So what started all this? When did you decide this was something you wanted to actively advocate?
Well, I first became aware of CDC (Center for Disease Control) figures for people over 65 falling down. Last year 2 million people over the age of 65 and had to go to the emergency room, of those 2 million, 1 million were admitted long term into the hospital. Of those 1 million…first of all the cost of those falls rack up to be billions of dollars…and of those 1 million, a certain percentage of them have broken a hip. If you are over the age of 65 and you have broken your hips, 20 percent of them will be dead within a year, and 80 percent of them will not be able to live independently for the remainder of their lives. This was shocking to me! I’m someone who learned to tightrope walk at 55, I learned to walk on a loose rope at 60, so I thought, well, I’ll go and teach people what I know about balance because my balance is extremely well trained. There’s nothing particularly special about my balance or me, it’s just that I’m chosen to train these things.
I began to go to university clubs around here (Florida) and public libraries and senior centers to deliver my talk about these things I’ve come up with, to train people’s balance. The people in the audience were all people 60, 70, 80 years old and over, but they were all independent livers and had driven distances to come hear my talk, so I was preaching to the choir. I became kind of disenchanted with that because everybody already knew what he or she had to do. However afterwards, I began to study about what I was doing and I came across that juggling study that was done in Germany that was replicated in England. Researchers took a group of people and they split them into groups and told them to practice juggling 20 minutes a day. Before they started, they took a fMRI of the test subjects’ brains after they were before and after they were done and compared it to a control group of the population. The people came back after 2 months of practicing. Half of them had gotten pretty good at it and the other half did not practice as much and were still dropping balls. Ok, so the group that was not told to juggle, the control population, showed no change on the fMRI. They took another fMRI of the people that had been juggling and got pretty good what do you think the scans revealed?
That new brain cells were created.
Exactly! Their brains lit up like a Christmas tree! But what about the people that didn’t learn to juggle as well?
I think they still gained brain cells?
ABSOLUTELY! It doesn’t matter how good you become at something, it’s just the fact that you’re trying to do it! It’s just the fact that you’re practicing, and thinking about it and going through the moves that enriches your brain! So with that knowledge I thought that we as human beings for the past 1,800,000 years had been hunter-gatherers, as in we did hunting/gathering, or some anthropologists call foraging. And that’s what we mostly did till 1790, until the Industrial Revolution. If we go back 100 years, before automobiles, we walked a lot. So what has happened is, with modern technology we have become extremely, increasingly sedentary. We used to, as hunter-gatherers, move in order to eat because there was no refrigeration, so we had to eat everything we got right away and we had to gather food on the daily. We were extremely active, extremely vital, but now our modern technology is the bane of our existence, it’s become a very negative thing. Back in the 1950s, when I was a kid, I thought I was going to get to 60 and retire and sit on my front porch and sit in a rocking chair and watch the children play in the front yard. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Since we no longer have to move to get food, we can just walk to the refrigerator to get food, or get in the car and drive to Kentucky Fried Chicken, or a fast food place. So we no longer have to move to get food, but we absolutely have to keep moving to stay vital.
So I found out this juggling thing really enriches the brain, but I wasn’t about to stand in front of an audience and tell them I’m about to teach them how to juggle today, instead I’m going to give them something really easy to do to train their right and left side of their body that are novel, that they haven’t done before, and I encourage them every year to learn something new. Last year I learned to juggle clubs. This year I’m learning to juggle four things at once, which is much more difficult than juggling three things at a time. I’m also now punching a speed bag. But next year, I’ve watched soccer players get a ball going up in the air and repeatedly kick it to keep it in the air, I’m going to learn to do that. And somebody told me that if I can do that, and keep the ball in the air consecutively for 10 times, that’s pretty darn good. So I’ll learn to do that. In the future I might learn to play the piano or the guitar for the drum, but just constantly, constantly, constantly train my body to do new things. It’s crucial, crucial!
Here at American Parkour, we focus on the practice of Parkour. Have you ever given Parkour a try? I’ve seen in your videos where you jump back and forth on the balance beam.
Not necessarily, but in my teachings I don’t even have those physical requirements for people. I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of those people in Africa that can run down an antelope? There are human beings on the planet, us, that can begin to chase an antelope till they can kill it. Do you know how fast these people go on average? 3.7 miles per hour! They just keep running; do you how far on average they run?
Isn’t it around 100 miles or something?
On average 19 miles.
So these guys just keep after it, just have to be able see its tracks and also see the animal, because it runs 40 mph for a few hundred yards and it gets worn down and we just keep at it till it tires out and we go in for the kill, and carry it home. But what I emphasize is that every year, every year you learn to do something new, that’s what I emphasize. That’s all there is to it!
If you could tell our older readers, ones who are hesitant about taking up Parkour because they think it is too late, one thing, what would it be?
Never too late! It’s never too late! To start doing something new with your body. If you start today and do a little bit, tomorrow you can do a little bit more and more and pretty soon you have reversed the aging process. Pretty soon you are able to do something you weren’t able to do a day ago, a month ago, years ago! I learned to snowboard at 60, tightrope walk at 55, and juggle clubs at 73 years old. It’s never too late!
That is an absolutely inspiring message. Here’s another question though. If you could tell the upcoming generation of young folks one thing, what would it be?
But really, by that I mean these young kids that are sitting at their computers, they’re not going for a walk in the woods and walking up the streambeds and down the streambeds and walking through the forest and walking through the jungle and paddling through the river. They’re missing out! They’re on a very bad trajectory toward ill health. Sedentary behavior is death! It’s death! It’s the ruination of a human being. We have to remain active to remain vital. It’s crucial. I know I’ve spoken sharply about that, but it’s true. When you take recess away from children, when you take away PE, you have done something very, very bad for humanity, for those kids.
Any last words?
I’m not good at any of these particular things. But I can do it because I try. And that’s what I encourage people, is to go out and try and practice. Try it, try it, try it. Be bold! Don’t be bold when it comes to things like jumping out of an airplane with a parachute, think long and hair about that. Don’t’ be bold about getting on the back of a motorcycle, think long and hard about that. But when it comes to doing something new in your life, like going to see a new movie or eat few food or new place or new people, new whatever. For things has to go perfectly for you so you can have yourself back safely in your soft bed at night for when you go ride that motorcycle or jumping off an airplane, so you definitely should think long and hard. It should feel like second nature. Otherwise try a new place, try a new person, try a new this, try a new that, just be bold.
For more on Stephen check out this video by Growing Bolder.