As the U.S. population ages, so does its activity level. But it doesn’t have to. That’s where the University of Lynchburg’s Active Aging Program comes in. Helping older adults live longer, healthier, and happier lives is the program’s primary goal. And, helping students gain valuable work experience with older patients.
ULAAP started in January 2019 with four to five patients.
“It was an effort to provide our graduates with real-world experience working with people in the community. I have been working on older adult programming for over a decade,” said program director Jeffrey Herrick, an associate professor of exercise physiology. The program has grown since then, with the Fall 2021 semester counting its 51st patient.
For recruiting, advertisements were placed with Lynchburg Parks and Recreation as well as throughout the community. Participants can join by reaching out to Herrick and either meeting on the Health Sciences campus, or at a local community center in the city. The program also offers a “residency program” where community members can visit a center near them to sign up on a particular day.
“We’ve tried to eliminate as many barriers as possible for the community members we want to serve,” Herrick said.
From there, participants work through a series of “baseline” tests administered by Lynchburg students to see what their current fitness is. Then, they are given a workout program they conduct at home. After seven weeks or so, participants come back for another round of tests to see how they’ve improved. There is no cost to the program.
Herrick said nearly 90% of participants who have cycled through the program have met their activity goals.
“We built the program so that our students are not calling people every day asking ‘are you doing it?’ ‘are you doing it?’ And, our first question is how successful that model is. What do we change to keep a long-term commitment? So far we’ve seen positive results,” Herrick said.
Christian Kumar ’22, a Westover Honors Fellow and exercise physiology major, looked forward to working directly with patients, especially because many students did not have that opportunity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve enjoyed the experience working with the patients in exercise. It brightens their day,” he said. “We are always laughing with them and they have a joy and desire to work with us. I can get 80-year-olds to exercise better than my teammates sometimes!”
The program fits neatly into Kumar’s long-term goal of attending physical therapy school at Lynchburg and specializing in geriatrics.
“The interactions I have had with the older population have been rewarding and insightful for the real world as a [physical therapist]. Also, I like to build a relationship with them and laugh with them. I don’t want them to just have the treatment and leave, I want them to have fun, too,” he said.
Currently, 13 students participate in the program, including nine seniors and four juniors.
“The program is a culmination of a lot of classes a student takes,” Herrick said. “I get pretty excited when a student engages with a client and uses content I know they got from another class. They are taking content from a book and putting it across the table where you have to be the leader and deliver [it] to a client.”
The program also serves as a research project for students and Herrick, testing “is there a better way to serve older adults in the community with exercise programming?”
The first major push for research was in 2020. The team had developed a baseline for the participants and was ready to track the data, but when the pandemic hit, the project was delayed until Fall 2021.
This fall, based on a request from the city of Lynchburg, they expanded the program to include in-person exercise classes for older adults.
“Participants are not necessarily people in the program, but it’s open to all members,” Herrick said. “Most are just looking for a low-impact exercise class, and the students like it. It’s loose, there’s music, engaging, laughing, and they get to be creative.”
Carlton “Ceejay” Williams ’22, an exercise physiology major, also said he enjoys working with older patients. Before joining the program he hadn’t had a lot of experience with personal training and exercise.
“So far, it’s been great to work with older adults. They all have their personality, and it’s been a really enjoyable experience working with them,” he said.
What’s the best part for him? The relationships they build with the patients in a short amount of time.
“Plus hearing their stories. It’s exciting to hear how they’ve improved in their physical activity and fitness,” Williams said.