In America, aging has generally been viewed as synonymous with frailty and the loss of independence. This assumption can often create psychological barriers to healthier, more fulfilling life experiences for senior citizens. In the absence of an organized program, seniors have few viable options for fighting the consequences of inactivity. The Chicago Fitness Plus Program (CFP) provides an innovative, social alternative to inactivity.
In 1995, Chicago Department on Aging (CDA) Commissioner Donald Smith began researching a formal exercise program for seniors. By traveling to Tufts University to learn about their research on the issue as well as local Chicago healthcare facilities and senior centers, Smith laid the groundwork for CFP. In 1998, CDA Commissioner Anna Willis, with the help of federal funding, sought out professionals in the field. In search of input on research and evaluation, she reached out to Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, the Chicago Health Department, and the Chicago Park District.
Under the professional guidance of an expert in exercise psychology with experience working on the physical rehabilitation of seniors, the CFP began to incorporate strength training, aerobics and flexibility training. The CDA has five regional senior centers. Each is equipped with senior-friendly exercise utilities, personal trainers and aerobics classes. The CDA additionally offers aerobics classes in 50 other locations, led by certified trainers twice a week. Seniors are asked to make voluntary contributions, from which the proceeds are put back into program equipment and costs.
The CFP also offers innovative exercise programs. Project Balance is a nine-week program intended to increase balance and to reduce the fear of falling. Project PUMP focuses on weight training with bands and free weights. The CFP also hosts a number of social fitness events such as Zoo Workout, Jack Frost Fun Festival and Adventurous Options Programs. For seniors with mobility problems, CDA televises a fitness program, "Windy City Workout," which has been so popular it has been converted to video as well.
More than 7,000 Chicago seniors participate in CFP every year. Over 83 percent of those participating report health improvements. Many participate in their 80s and 90s, overcoming illnesses more rapidly and experiencing a higher quality of life. The CDA has received over 1200 written and verbal anecdotes of praise.
The CFP has become a new way to address senior needs. The more seniors exercise, the less reliant they become on medications and long-term care. The exercise can also delay the impact of aging-related diseases and becomes an alternative to nursing homes and in-home services. Chicago Fitness Plus has effectively enacted a paradigm shift in the way seniors and government officials look at fitness.