University of Victoria PhD candidate Kristina Kowalski

Never too old to put pep in your step

Researcher seeks inactive seniors to study cognitive benefits of walking

Phyllis McCormand slings her leg of the back of a park bench at Clover Point on Dallas Road and leans into a deep stretch. Later, she’ll smile before gracefully bending forward and pressing her hands flat against the ground.

At 88, McCormand has no problem following along as personal trainer Kristina Kowalski leads her through a brief stretching session. McCormand cannot, however, participate in a study recently launched by Kowalski, also a PhD candidate in the University of Victoria’s school of exercise science, physical and health education, and the department of psychology.

McCormand starts her day with an hour-long walk through Lambrick Park, so when she heard Kowalkski was looking for 100 seniors to participate in a study that aims to uncover the cognitive and physiological benefits of walking, she was keen to sign up and help Kowalski with her research. But she couldn’t – she was already too active.

“She felt that I walked around the park too much, ran up and down the stairs too much,” said McCormand, who also participates in exercise sessions at The Victorian, a retirement residence in Gordon Head. “I don’t scientifically pay any attention. I just walk.”

Kowalkski is currently recruiting people over age 65 who aren’t meeting Health Canada’s physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week, for an 8-week study slated to begin in August.

Walking groups will likely take place near the Gorge, UVic, Lochside, Dallas Road and Elk Lake. Kowalski plans to begin groups with lower intensity, 15-minute walks at the start of the study and build to 30 to 45 minutes of moderate intensity by the time her research is through.

Kowalski will track her findings through questionnaires, walking tests and the use of a pressure sensitive mat to measure gait – an indicator of cognitive function, she said.

“I have a unique background in both kinesiology, exercise science and I’ve always had a big interest in brain health,” said Kowalski, who holds a bachelor of science in kinesiology and psychology and a master’s in clinical neuropsychology.

“There’s a growing need to look at that area, because we do have a larger population of older adults. It’s a rapidly expanding portion of our population and physical activity is a way to promote our health as we age.”

Strengthening Kowalski’s argument on the merits of an active lifestyle is 71-year-old Bob McMillan of Victoria – another ineligible participant in Kowalski’s study, given that he already walks four to five times each week on the Dallas Road pathway.

McMillan has reduced function in one leg as a result of polio as a child. While his leg is the reason he gave up golfing and skiing, two of his favourite activities, it has also caused him to ramp up the activities in which he can still participate, such as routine walks.

“You’ve got to do something to keep the body going,” McMillan said. “You do what you can do.”

Kowalkski aims to develop programs geared toward maintaining cognitive and physical health, boosting independence and quality of life, and reducing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. “We can’t control things like genetics, but there’s a lot we can do to promote our brain health.”

Kowalksi doesn’t just walk the walk when it comes to her academic pursuits. When she’s not crafting her dissertation, the competitive triathlete is swimming, running and biking her way around town. Last year alone she competed in nine triathlons.

“It’s a great place and a great time to be doing this,” she said.

“Maybe if some of the people in a (retirement) home see this, they might be motivated to do the same,” McMillan added.

For more on Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds – a supervised walking program for older adults, call 250-472-5288 or email



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