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LIFE uses games to promote exercise

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AMES, Iowa — While traveling around the state of Iowa, Sarah Francis got an idea. 

“When I first started, I was meeting with different congregate meal sites and senior centers that serves afternoon meals to older adults,” said Francis, assistant professor at Iowa State University and Nutrition Extension Specialist. “They were talking about how at this one particular site, the older adults were waiting in line for 30 minutes to play Wii because only one person at the center knew how to use it.”

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That story planted the seed for what has become the Living (well through) Intergenerational Fitness and Exercise — or LIFE. And, on May 27, the program will begin in Sibley.

“It got my brain thinking that I’m Extension and 4-H is part of Extension and 4-H is about giving back to the community,” Francis said. “If we connect the youth to the senior centers to help them learn how to use this technology to stay active, it would be mutually beneficial. That was the seed that’s grown into the LIFE program.”

Connecting older and younger adults was a goal of the program from the very beginning.

“The purpose is to improve the wellbeing of older adults in Iowa and pretty much anywhere,” Francis said. “It uses exergaming technology to promote physical activity participation in older adults. Most older adults are not meeting the physical activity recommendations set forth by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the dietary guidelines for Americans. We developed this program as a low-cost way for them to get moving.

“Another goal of the program is to expose younger adults to gerontology and to help promote inter-generational interaction, so the younger adult can learn from the older adult and vice versa.”

The program began as a pilot project.

“We worked with an exercise physiologist, a life-span psychologist and a youth development specialist to develop a program that benefits older adults,” Francis said. “In the pilot study, we found that it improved their functional fitness and increased their activity participation. We also found that it helped reduce agism in the younger adults. With those benefits, we were able to secure funding to expand it around the state to evaluate it further.”

The program uses exergaming, which is using video games to be active. Currently, the program uses Kinect Sports, which offers games like track and field, bowling and table tennis. Kinect doesn’t require any type of controller — the games are controlled simply by body movements.

The entire LIFE program is 25 weeks, but for eight weeks, older adults do the gaming with the younger adults.

“They meet twice a week,” Francis explained. “During the first two weeks, there is also what we call interactive games, or team building games. The last 16 weeks, they get wellness newsletters that talk about physical wellness, which is nutrition and activity and also social and emotional wellness.”

She said during those last 16 weeks — and beyond — the older adults continue to use the Kinect to exercise.

“Activity is key to maintaining independence in older adulthood,” Francis said. “If you start losing muscle tone and flexibility and strength, you are less able do your activities of daily living. If you’re not able to do your activities of daily living, you’re more likely to require assisted living care or to go into a nursing home.

“Our main goal is to maintain our health and independence of our older adult population so they can remain in their homes.”

And, she said, the program is mutually beneficial for the younger adults as well.

“What we’re seeing is they have an improved outlook on aging,” Francis explained. “They don’t view aging as a negative process because they are working with these older adults who are active and happy and healthy and energetic. Research has indicated that having a positive outlook on aging offers health benefits to an individual.”

In Osceola County, Katie Knobbe, Nutrition and Health Specialist, said the program will begin on May 27. It will be from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Community Wellness and Rehabilitation Center at Osceola Community Hospital in Sibley.

“You don’t have to be a member or live in any of these communities to join,” Knobbe said. “It’s free for anybody. Even if you’re not a member of the wellness center, you can still come in and do this for free.”

The program is available for adults age 60 and older.

“I know some people have done this in the past — if they brought their grandmother or mother or father in, and if they want to come too, that’s just fine,” Knobbe said. “If they want to bring their older grandma or parent because they would think they’d be good in this program, but they don’t know if they’d actually show up, they can come with.”

Knobbe said it’s a great opportunity for those in northwest Iowa.

“It’s a great program because it’s a simple way to exercise and it’s low impact,” she said. “Not only will the older adults learn from the youth, but I have a feeling that the youth will also learn from the older adults, too. You’re connecting two different populations that may not always have the most interaction together.”

Knobbe is still in need of young adults (ages 16 to 25) as well.

“If they are looking for service hours, we’d gladly take them,” she said. “Or, if someone needed some experiences if they are considering going into the health field eventually, this would be a great opportunity for them to get out and volunteer as well.”

To sign up, call Knobbe at (712) 262-2264 or visit the Wellness Center in Sibley.

“We want them to participate all week; we don’t want this to be a one-time deal. This is part of a study, so we’re trying to find out the effectiveness of it. We’d like to learn if it’s a worthwhile program for everybody,” Knobbe said. “It’s a sustainable program, too. After we are done, they are allowed to continue. With the program, we have the Xbox already bought for them.”

While the statewide program is off to a good start, she hopes to expand.

“Our goal is to make it a national program through Extension and other organizations,” she said. “They could go to the website and get all the information they need. We’re willing to share the LIFE program manual and other materials we’ve developed for them to be able to implement it in their hometown.”

Information can be found on

Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.