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University of Colorado College of Nursing

College of Nursing

Catherine Jankowski

Geriatric Researcher Advocates Physical Activity for Resilient Aging

Geriatric Research

How do you maintain and promote physical function during the aging process? Does physical activity enhance the quality of life and resilience later in life? That’s the essence of 13 years of research by Catherine Jankowski, PhD, FACSM.  

“The importance of a lifetime of physical activity is so evident,” Dr. Jankowski says. “Nurse practitioners can help convey the value of exercise to all types of people.”

Dr. Jankowski assesses physical function in older adults. She looks at subjective measures (how persons think they’re doing) and how she observes them (such as going up a flight of stairs). “I want to understand what their perception and actual performance is,” she says.

She gathers information through exercise intervention studies. The researcher introduces exercise as a physiological stimulus to the participant and then looks at the system response (muscular or skeletal, for examples). Measurable adaptations to the stimulus help to answer the scientific hypothesis.

“Our interventions are designed with a scientific question in mind,” Dr. Jankowski says. “Our approach is different from exercise that might be designed by a personal trainer because we are attempting to measure a physiological response. The exercise intervention has to be provided consistently and with fidelity to the hypothesis. This is one reason that a controlled exercise environment is critical to the successful implementation of our exercise interventions.

In Dr. Jankowski’s case, the controlled environment is the Exercise Research Laboratory on the third floor of the Leprino Building on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Exclusively designed for exercise intervention studies, the lab accommodates the older adult. There are lighter weights and treadmills with extra safety features. Research assistants provide one-on-one exercise instruction and supervise all exercise sessions. The level of supervision is consistent with that of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs.

Participants learn to record the exercise they have accomplished. “One of our goals is to help older exercisers feel comfortable in the exercise environment and empower them to successfully complete each exercise session to the best of their ability,” Dr. Jankowski says.

The Exercise Research Laboratory is located adjacent to the Center for Translation Research (CTRC) Outpatient Clinic and Core Laboratory. The close proximity of these resources is convenient for study participants and efficient for research staff.

Upon completion of a study, data analysis, and interpretation, the final manuscript enters peer-review for publication. Dr. Jankowski recently submitted a revised manuscript to a European Journal of Applied Physiology. This manuscript describes a weight training study of middle age and older men, examining the effects of taking acetaminophen on muscle mass and bone density responses to weight training.

Wendy Kohrt, PhD, Professor of Medicine in CU’s School of Medicine is a co-investigator in that study. “Dr. Kohrt has been a magnanimous mentor and colleague.”

With a doctorate in kinesiology, Dr. Jankowski came to Colorado in 1999 as a fellow in the School of Medicine’s Division of Geriatric Medicine IMAGE Group. This fall she joined CU’s College of Nursing faculty, retaining a secondary appointment in geriatric medicine. She teaches an online course in inferential statistics in the nurse practitioner program.  

Maintaining relationships across a variety of schools and departments is a key benefit to being on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Dr. Jankowski says she can literally walk to the offices and clinics of colleagues in public health, geriatric medicine, internal medicine, endocrinology, physical therapy and so on, to share ideas and projects. 

Dr. Jankowski is an enthusiastic campaigner for her favorite subject—the relationships between aging, muscle and bone health, and physical activity. She gives evidence-based lecture-demonstrations in the community. She hopes to bring interested nursing students to some of these presentations. “Now that I’m in the College of Nursing, I can engage students at many levels,” she says. 

Dr. Jankowski embodies the best of a research university as she brings the benefits of her scientific research to encourage health in the greater population as it ages.