Aging Gracefully

The fountain of youth is fitness.

By Samantha Allen ’10

Have you ever admired someone’s timeless beauty and wondered how that person aged so gracefully? It turns out, beauty isn’t just good fortune.

Last October, Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, professor and head of the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discussed “Aging Successfully and Physical Activity” as the fall 2009 Gerontology Institute Distinguished Speaker. Addressing the lecture hall packed with more than 100 students and locals, he insisted that people can age successfully if they find a way to remain physically active, even if it’s just walking to the grocery store.

“Aging successfully is not hereditary,” Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko says. “It’s a lifestyle.” He claims that 30 percent of United States’ citizens age 55 and over are sedentary, and ony 25 percent of citizens age 75 and over get at or above the recommended amount of exercise. His work is part of the National Blueprint, a coalition of 50 organizations that is developing strategies for increasing physical activity in middle-age to older citizens. He says something can be done to reverse the national epidemic of obesity and lifestyle-related conditions that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, or stroke, and he presented several options.

He proposes a friendly advertising campaign that encourages, rather than insists on, physical activity. Some of the messages might include: “I choose to stay active because I choose to live on my own terms” and “I remain active because stronger arms give better hugs.”

“Ads such as these dismiss the medical model and can often get through to the aging population more effectively,” says Chodzko-Zajko, who never uses the term exercise because of its negative connotation. The goal, he explains, is to inspire. He praised the College’s numerous aging-related programs.

“The College has a message that is very active,” says John Krout, director of the Gerontology Institute, “but keeping [the country] active is a message we don’t hear enough.” He agrees that IC’s health-conscious students will play a major role in delivering that message by applying what they learn to helping others in their lives.

Chodzko-Zajko says the challenge is to keep people healthy, independent, and secure. In order to achieve this, he says, aging needs to be viewed by society as an opportunity rather than an economic burden.