Bringing vigour to the community

The room is filled with sounds of clanking weights and friendly conversations, as roughly 20 participants begin their strength training.

After 30 minutes, they move to the gymnasium for warm-up laps and stretching. The gym has a welcoming atmosphere as walls are lined with photos of smiling faces, some of which are here today. One face is Margaret Wilson. She is 66 years old.

“(The exercises) help you maintain a positive frame of mind,” Wilson said after her senior fitness class with the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging (CCAA). “You can get old in years, but you don’t have to get old in mind.”


Wilson attends classes three times a week and has been exercising with the CCAA at Mount St. Joseph’s since she retired six years ago.

“Your general well-being is much better,” she said. “So, you feel renewed and refreshed when you leave.”

The centre, officially opened in 1989, is based on research founder David Cunningham began 20 years prior. The research, he explained, started from an idea he had about how effective physical activity for adults in their mid-50s to early 90s could improve their physical and mental health.

He asked basic questions like: When you get older, do you normally slow down? If you say to someone, ‘walk slow and then walk fast,’ how do they pick those speeds? What is ‘slow’ for an old person?

The CCAA was given use of the Mount St. Joseph’s facility for free during its developing years.

During the early stages of his research, Cunningham began teaching Physiology and Kinesiology at Western. Fellow professors Donald Paterson and Peter Rechnitzer joined his studies a few years later.

Even though their research was completely new, and therefore had to be financially self-sustaining, Cunningham saw promise in their work to improve the health of London’s aging population, he said.

“There were no studies in that day. We knew nothing about it. So, whatever we did was going to be well received,” he explained.

Since, thousands of health care agencies across Canada have partnered with the CCAA, including the Healthy Aging team at the Lawson Health Research Institute.

Cunningham’s graduate students also greatly contributed, as they worked in the labs doing research, and in the community, conducting exercise classes. One of their first experiments was the Retirement Research Study, which measured the role of exercise in older adults with heart disease. This program began in 1981 and still runs today out of TD Stadium.

One of Cunningham’s students was Robert Petrella, now CCAA’s medical director and a professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Get Fit for Active Living, which gives tips to adults 65 and older about leading an active lifestyle, is one program Petrella’s team has created. Many existing programs, he continued, will also implement lifestyle coaching so participants can better maintain their health.

“Becoming more active and eating right, it takes time and it’s behaviour based,” Petrella explained. “So, I’ve been interested in doing lifestyle coaching where an individual’s matched up with a support – someone who can inspire them.”

His research team is currently leading the way in various health initiatives across Canada. But in addition to clinical studies, a big part of what the CCAA provides the London community is what it teaches its younger generation about growing old.

“It gives kids and students the opportunity to get down to the root of people and relationships, and that’s a wonderful thing,” said Petrella, whose daughter, Andrea, 19, volunteers at the CCAA. “We need to connect more with cross-generational aspects of what we do day-to-day, and this is one place where you can really get that.”

Sarah Merkel is an example of this cross-generational relationship.

“It was that first experience (at the centre) that really opened my eyes as a student,” she said about her practicum placement at Mount St. Joseph’s in 2007.

“They totally redefine what it means to be older. You really are seeing the amazing things that older adults can do,” Merkel said.

Merkel is now one of CCAA’s health promoters and has been working at the centre since 2008.  She also encourages others to get involved by teaching senior fitness certification courses to those wanting to lead fitness classes.

“We’re trying to, with our classes, say, ‘Anybody, whether you’re using your walker or a (healthy) community-based older adult, can be physically active,’” Merkel said.

But apart from exercise, the centre offers a social inclusiveness many older adults enjoy.

“They can connect with people who they have common interest with,” Merkel explained. “It’s like Cheers – it’s like ‘going to a place where everybody knows your name.’”

The CCAA now serves over 500 older adults in the London community.

“If these doors were to shut that would be 500 people that would need to look elsewhere for places to keep them motivated,” Merkel said.

As for Cunningham, he’s still involved on the board of directors where he gives advice on new directions for research.

“It started as my idea,” he said. “It’s a much bigger program now than I had ever dreamed it could ever become when I started it.”