20 years of aging actively

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By Dale Carruthers
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Aging is inevitable – but it can be done well.
 
The Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging is following its own mission statement and aging with dignity as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
 
The centre, established in 1989, was the first of its kind in Canada and is now a national leader in research related to physical activity and aging.
 
Much has changed over the past two decades – especially the way in which doctors and the general population view the effects of activity on aging.
 
“Prior to the last 20 years there used to be a huge fear from the medical community that if one became physically active as they aged that could be damaging to the person’s condition,” says Clara Fitzgerald, the centre’s program director.
 
In fact, educating the public is one of the top priories of the centre, which is the most-cited source in media and research literature on aging and activity.
 
“Now everybody knows that…physical activity plays a huge role in preventing and maintaining a variety of chronic conditions as one ages,” Fitzgerald says.
 
But what now may seem like common knowledge, wasn’t known 20 years ago.
 
“What we know now is that a person’s lifestyle plays as big a role in developing chronic conditions as one ages,” Fitzgerald says. “So we really focus more on the prevention perspective and the role of physical activity in preventing many of the chronic conditions that are typically associated with aging.”
 
Prior to 1987, Canada didn’t have a research centre for aging and activity, yet people were living longer and the leading edge of Baby Boomers were in their 40s.
 
David A. Cunningham, a professor of physiology and kinesiology at Western, championed the cause. The centre was the culmination of his idea in 1978 to study the role of physical activity in aging, and the research that followed in the 1980s.
 
“I realized at the later part of the 1970s that we needed a formal centre for activity and aging research,” Cunningham says.
 
In 1988, Cunningham applied to the university’s Senate for centre status and, in 1989, the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging was created. The centre, located at Mount St. Joseph’s, was linked to Kinesiology and the Department of Physiology.
 
Today the research is headquartered in the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Health Sciences Building, while classes are still conducted at the Mount.
 
The centre uses only exercise programs scientifically proven to be beneficial to older adults – so you won’t find participants doing hot yoga, Pilates or using the Bo-Flex.
 
“From what we learn from the research we develop model physical activity programs for mature adults. They’re not just recreational programs,” says Fitzgerald, who believes chronological age is just a meaningless number, and functional age is all that matters.
 
“They’re really programs that will help people maintain their functional ability as they age. We also develop education and training programs to prepare leaders of those programs so that we can ensure nationally that there are physical activity programs for older people.”
 
On a Friday afternoon big band music fills the gym, while a group of older adults walk around the perimeter carrying dumbbells of various weights – some not carrying any weights at all.
 
In the middle stands an instructor, who doesn’t look much younger than the participants, shouting instructions.
 
One participant, Jake MacKenzie, 83, comes to the centre three times a week to do weights, aerobics, balancing and stretching. He started attending in 2000 after suffering two heart attacks.
 
“The head of cardiology over at University Hospital suggested that I get involved with this program,” he says.
 
Twenty years ago most doctors wouldn’t recommend a recovering heart attack patient start working out – especially with weights – but now, because of research by the centre, it’s becoming more common.
 
“If you don’t get involved in this kind of exercise then you’re going to go downhill,” MacKenzie says. “It’s very important for your health.”
 
The classes also allow older adults to make friends and meet new people.
 
“We have a lot of fun. I look forward to the social aspect.”
 
With nearly 500 participants in London, the centre is constantly expanding.
 
But it has faced challenges in its 20 years – the biggest being funding. Don Paterson, the research director, says obtaining funding for prevention research was difficult, especially in 1980s.
 
“From a research point of view it’s always been hard to fund prevention versus treatment,” says Paterson.
 
However, the centre’s research helped change the stigma attached to prevention research, and today there has been a shift in thinking, said Paterson.
 
“To keep our system functioning we need to look at prevention and keep people out of hospitals.”  
 
The writer is a master’s student in journalism.
 

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