Calisthenics for the mind

Oct 02, 2003, vol. 28, no. 3
By Roberta Staley

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Fitness comes in many forms: weight training, running, walking, meditation, yoga or pilates. But a different type of fitness may be even more vital to a person's quality of life than preserving a good physical constitution.

This is mental fitness - a regimen of calisthenics for the mind that is the brainchild of SFU's Sandra Cusack and Wendy Thompson, co-authors of Mental Fitness for Life - 7 Steps to Healthy Aging. This literary cerebral gym promotes mental alertness and intelligence through life-long education and learning.

The book, to be released this month by Key Porter (a signing is set for Oct. 9 at the SFU Harbour Centre bookstore), is based upon eight years of gerontology research by Cusack, a Guttmann-Gee research fellow in educational gerontology at SFU, and Thompson, an educational gerontologist and motivational coach. “Our goal is to convince everyone who reads this book that you can have mental agility until the end of life,” says Thompson, a former Olympic speed skater.

Penning a book is not unusual among SFU's research-oriented faculty. However, Mental Fitness for Life is unique in that it was published for distribution to the lay reader, not just academics. The pair realized the topic of mental fitness was one that hit a nerve with the general public. Most of the research that the book is based upon came from programs and workshops designed by Cusack and Thompson for New Westminster's Century House, a seniors' community, leisure and recreation centre, where the 2,100 members range in age from 48 to 95.

“Over the past five years, people who heard about the program continually asked how to obtain resources or would want to participate in the workshops,” says Cusack. “We had the resources. We knew we could make it available by creating a book.”

Although both are veteran authors (the pair co-authored Leadership for Older Adults: Aging with purpose and passion in 1999), Cusack and Thompson, nonetheless, sought the advice of Janice Bearg, director of SFU's writing and publishing program, to help them get Mental Fitness for Life into bookstores. Bearg recommended that the two first find an agent, as publishers generally do not read unsolicited manuscripts. Bearg also gave the pair a template to help prepare a proper book proposal. Vancouver's Contemporary Management eventually represented the co-authors, and successfully approached Key Porter to publish their book. Bearg says there are differences between a book written for academia and what she describes as trade publishing for the general public.

“Some academics are more successful at making that transition, and obviously Sandra and Wendy were very successful,” says Bearg, who worked with publishing houses like Penguin Canada and Douglas & McIntyre before joining SFU.

One of the challenges with writing a book for the lay public is ensuring the prose is lighter - free of the studious language that can make academic writing a ponderous read. Cusack says that the partnership between her and Thompson helped ensure the book is an easy read.

“She has a very practical side. I write from a research perspective and she writes from a common sense perspective. So, between the two of us, the language is easy to understand both from an academic perspective and a practical one,” Cusack says.

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