Researchers Promote Healthy Living at Any Age

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

As 69-year-old Wanda Fisher crossed the 5K finish line at the 30th Annual Senior Games this spring, she was cheered on by students from The University of Texas at El Paso who learned some valuable lessons about aging gracefully from the senior athlete.

This was the 19th year that Fisher participated in the games, which showcase the competitive spirit in adults age 50 and older who take part in a variety of challenging sports events from table tennis, bowling, golf, swimming and race walking to horseshoes, volleyball, basketball, cycling, road racing and track and field.UTEP’s College of Health Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, Center for Civic Engagement and El Paso’s City Parks and Recreation Department collaborated to study and promote fitness among senior citizens. UTEP’s College of Health Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, Center for Civic Engagement and El Paso’s City Parks and Recreation Department collaborated to study and promote fitness among senior citizens.

For Fisher, exercise is a way to keep herself out of a wheelchair.

“If you’ve got it in your mind, do it. It has to be mind over matter and you discipline what your body is going to do. Don’t let doctors tell you that you can’t do it because that’s a farce,” Fisher said.

Fisher is one of 10 senior games athletes who are at the heart of a community research partnership that involves UTEP’s College of Health Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, Center for Civic Engagement and El Paso’s City Parks and Recreation Department.

“Si Se Puede/Yes We Can!: Snapshots of Older Adults Participating in Senior Games in El Paso: Integrating Service Learning in Public Health Education,” documents the positive experiences of the athletes to help generate a public health education campaign aimed at inspiring older adults to stay physically fit.  

From March 14 through April 16, UTEP students enrolled in anthropology courses interviewed athletes on camera about their fitness routines and their motivation to exercise. Students from UTEP’s occupational therapy program provided basic health assessments and checked blood pressure, body fat percentage, height, weight and lumbar flexibility prior to the Senior Games' opening ceremony.

Students also volunteered through the Center for Civic Engagement to keep time and scores, helped with registration and setup, officiated some of the events, and above all, provided moral support.

“Service learning is so critical,” said Dahlia Castillo, clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy and one of the project’s co-investigators. “While the coursework and the classroom activities are important, getting out in the community and doing something for our community provides us with a much more enriched learning environment. The (students) are learning things that they will probably keep for life.”

The project is funded by a $4,000 grant from the Community Academic Partnership for Health Science Research from the College of Health Sciences.

This summer, health sciences faculty will be working with Castillo and Guillermina Nunez-Mchiri, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology and anthropology and the project’s other co-investigator, to develop health modules to educate older adults about exercise and healthy living.

Nunez-Mchiri is developing a module on the social stigmas of aging with the assistance of graduate and undergraduate students. Castillo and Cecilia Fierro, O.T.D., a clinical assistant professor in occupational therapy, are working to educate seniors about fall and accident prevention. Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy Celia Pechak, Ph.D., is looking at the healthy benefits of exercise and Clinical Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Amanda Loya, Pharm.D., will create a module on medication management.

The modules also will be recorded and students from the CCE will show the videos of the modules and the athletes’ testimonials at senior centers and nursing homes as part of their service learning starting in the fall.

“One goal is to recruit more senior adults to participate in the Senior Games next spring and the other is to encourage people to adopt healthy living practices and incorporate exercise in their lifestyles,” said Nunez-Mchiri. “These are the things you can do to stay well. When older adults see testimonials of their peers saying, ‘I have overcome cancer. I like competing. Exercise makes me feel good and it's fun,’ they will hopefully be more motivated to get physically active themselves. Whatever messages we plan to take out of these videos, we hope that they will communicate more effectively from an older adult to another older adult.”

Diego Davila, a junior communication major at UTEP, recorded the majority of the videos. He said working with older adults allowed him to develop a connection to them and be inspired to live a healthier lifestyle. Undergraduate students Irasema Cuellar, Omar Lozano and Hector Flores assisted with the senior athletes' interviews. 

“I wanted to observe and be a witness of how they live their lives and how they manage their exercise routines,” Davila said. “If you see someone who has a good healthy living system, you want to learn from them. You can learn by observing them, and that was part of my motivation to get up and be there for them.”

According to David Lopez, senior division coordinator for El Paso Parks and Recreation, his department’s collaboration with the University is helping to promote fitness and healthy aging throughout the city.

“I want to work with UTEP and also partner with them in a way that we can expand our program,” said Lopez, who has been an instructor in the University’s kinesiology and physical education department for nearly 20 years. “One of our objectives is to promote health through exercise. We can partner with lectures about pharmacology, physical therapy, and also provide an opportunity for the students to see the other side of senior life.”

The project also has created an opportunity for the colleges of health sciences and liberal arts to work together and expand the professional horizons of their students.

“From the anthropology perspective, we really are connected in so many ways because, along with occupational therapy, we’re really interested in individuals living their lives to the fullest and having the most in everything that’s important to them,” Nunez-Mchiri said.  “Anthropologists study people's lives, habits and what things are important to them. We really have a great deal in common and we’re just looking at it from different perspectives to make a positive impact in our community's health. This is a great project to build bridges across the generations. If youth can learn from seniors, they can begin to make changes to have a healthier adult life in their futures.”