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Members of the Lifetime Fitness Program swing medicine balls overhead for an upper body exercise. Classes in the spring and fall terms are hosted at the Campus Recreation Center East in Urbana.
Members of the Lifetime Fitness Program swing medicine balls overhead for an upper body exercise. Classes in the spring and fall terms are hosted at the Campus Recreation Center East in Urbana.

Fresh legs carry on the Lifetime Fitness Program


It’s 7:30 a.m. at Campus Recreation Center East on the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Charmaine Young swings a 10-pound exercise ball around her head before lowering to the exercise mat for a “Superman” pose, which works her back muscles. 

Young is 86 years old, but you’d never guess it based on how she moves in the Lifetime Fitness Program, the five-day-a-week group exercise class run by the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health. She’s been returning to the class each semester for nearly 38 years. 

“I live alone, and outside of a log or a tree limb, I can pick up whatever I need,” Young said. “The [Lifetime Fitness Program] is such a part of me, it’s hard to take it apart.” 

The Lifetime Fitness Program, “LFP” for short, sports an eight-decade history at the University of Illinois of helping adults ages 55 and older stay fit, while supporting the college’s research goals. 

The program recently changed hands after longtime KCH Professor Ken Wilund, who ran LFP for more than a decade, left for the University of Arizona. 

But Lifetime Fitness quickly found fresh legs under it, with two first-year faculty at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the helm: KCH Assistant Professors Jack Senefeld and Emerson Sebastião. 

“[Wilund] was looking for someone else to sort of liven up the program,” Senefeld said. “He asked Emerson and I if we would be involved, and we both excitedly said yes.” 

Of course, the program didn’t just “fall in their laps,” Sebastião said. Both faculty have research bona fides in exercise science, especially for older adults. 

What they’ve quickly discovered is a fitness group brimming with devotees, many of whom have been coming back to the weekday classes for decades. And there’s room for more. 

“COVID was not a fun time for society, and a lot of community-based, physical activity-based programs had really dwindling communities,” Senefeld said. “Our goal has been to promote the program and increase the number of people that know about it, because the people who know about it, love it.” 

While the pair of faculty members administer the program and oversee its research, the 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. weekday classes are run by undergraduate students for class credit and supervised by graduate students Ashley Morgan and Kaitlyn Pawelczyk. Sebastião, like Wilund before him, still attends a couple of sessions each week. 

“Having this close connection, being able to work with the older adults, it’s good to be around them. It’s fun—it helps me in other areas as well,” he said. “Talking about building community, I think it's important to be there, show our faces.” 

LFP is a community unto itself. Each class radiates positivity, even in those early mornings. 

“That’s an awesome part of the Lifetime Fitness Program, the social, community aspect of it. Not even just for the members, it’s even been like that for me,” said Pawelczyk, a first-year grad student coordinator for the program studying Nutritional Sciences. “Everyone is so supportive, caring, invested in each other’s lives from an exercise standpoint and from an intentional standpoint. Everyone wants to know how everyone is doing and support them.” 

A reservoir for research 

The year was 2009, and Sandy Goss Lucas had recently retired from the University of Illinois, where she directed the Introductory Psychology curriculum. A friend of hers tipped her off to a study in kinesiology, researching whether women’s weight was better controlled through diet or exercise, and Lucas decided to join. 

She was put on the exercise track and found out that the regimen increased the participants’ bone density, among other positive things, she said. For her participation, she got a small payment and a free semester of the Lifetime Fitness Program. 

“We were intersecting with people who were doing Lifetime Fitness anyway, so I went to see what it was all about,” she said. “And I got hooked.” 

The friendly atmosphere, challenging exercises, and “phenomenal” student instructors immediately appealed to her. Lucas, now 74, has been coming back for the past 15 years. 

“It’s just been one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. 

Many of Lucas’ classmates found the class in the same way, after going through a research study in the college. That’s intentional: Many KCH faculty are interested in recruiting older adults for exercise studies, but after the study elapses, older adults might not have a place to stay in touch, Sebastião said. 

“This program also serves that purpose—to have a place to go after research studies are done, and then they can be integrated with that group and then start building their community and keep exercising, which is the main focus,” he said. “We want them to be long-term exercisers, not just for 12 weeks, which is normally how a study would last.”   

The exercise is “vigorous,” according to 20-year LFP attendee Fran Hacker, who said the regular activity helped her recovery from cancer. 

“When we’re off a week or two, I can notice the difference,” she said. 
But the program’s different classes—stretches in the morning, strength work, water aerobics and yoga—are designed to be functional, instructors said. 

“You want to tailor the program to the fact that they are older adults. We want to be careful of balance, of the knees, obviously, but we want to make it fun,” Pawelczyk said. 

The next frontier for the professors is getting new research elements off the ground, Senefeld said. Many of the adults who keep coming back to Lifetime Fitness are interested in their health; Senefeld and Sebastião are planning to implement regular assessments on various fitness metrics, from strength and aerobic capacity to walking speed. 

“They're really interested to know if they're slowing down, and so we can help them quantify that and provide that feedback and then use that to look at how does physical exercise benefit older adults,” Senefeld said. 

The Lifetime Fitness team recently published a program overview in Kinesiology Review, running through the structure of the program, its physical benefits for older adults and experiential learning for the student instructors. 

The group’s social ties have kept the cohort going strong, even through the COVID-19 pandemic. When classes were canceled in early 2020, a group of exercisers began meeting at West Side Park for spaced-out, masked-up outdoor yoga. The tradition of meeting on weekends has kept up ever since, said Mike Sims, an 11-year participant in LFP. 

“We text each other and meet on Saturdays and sometimes go out for coffee and watch movies after that,” Sims said. “The [social aspect] opens up a whole atmosphere bigger than just exercising.” 

Just three weeks after a knee replacement surgery, Lucas was back in class stretching with the rest of the cohort. Her classmates and the student instructors were, as always, ready to welcome her back. 

“We’re a very close group, right now we have people going through breast cancer, ovarian cancer, chemo. People have gone through all kinds of things, we take a meal, we stay in touch, we check up on each other,” she said. 

“I just feel very, very strongly that this group has kept me sane.”

(Members of the Lifetime Fitness Program pay $30 a month for full membership. Summer classes run until August 11, MWF from 8-9 a.m. at Freer Hall. Fall classes will resume Monday-Friday at CRCE on August 28). 

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