With the rapid economic growth of countries like China, the global community is beginning to share some of America's major health issues, including the problems of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle in the aging population. But older adults and their attitudes toward health are very different from culture to culture, and even within the same culture. Kin-Kit (Ben) Li is studying the characteristics that define how older people look at their health future, and is using those different perspectives to motivate them to exercise.
Ben, a third-year Ph.D. student in Exercise and Sport Science, received the 2007-08 Bayley Graduate Fellowship for his program of sport and exercise psychology, gerontology, and quantitative research. He earned his bachelor and master degrees in psychology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he says adult exercise is becoming an increasingly important issue.
"Traditionally, the people in China have been primarily concerned about their economic well-being," he says. "Now that people are earning a little more, they can start to think about quality of life, and start taking better care of themselves. They're learning it doesn't matter how much money you have if you don't have good health."
Ben is especially interested in several gerontological theories that suggest people are guided in their behaviors by the way they imagine their future selves. Some people are motivated by envisioning themselves in a state of glowing good health. Others are motivated by the fear of being unhealthy and dependent on others. His studies combine theoretical models like these with quantitative research methods, with the aim of creating culturally sensitive tools to encourage older people to exercise.
With more than a dozen scholarly articles, abstracts, and presentations to his credit, Ben is already a respected researcher. He won international accolades last year when the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance chose one of his papers from among 127 competing submissions. With few exceptions, previous recipients of that award have been tenure-track assistant professors who won on the basis of their doctoral research.
"This national award is an incredible achievement for Ben, and brings honor to our department, college, and university," says his major professor, Dr. Brad Cardinal. "Ben has set a high standard of excellence for himself and is intrinsically motivated to make a difference in the world."
In addition to his research accomplishments, Ben is known for his talent as a teacher. This year, as a sign of confidence in his teaching skills, his department chair assigned him to a core class normally taught by a full-time faculty member — a responsibility few other graduate students have earned.
Ben also volunteers to help other graduate students and faculty with statistical projects. "He is extremely patient in these interactions, and truly serves as a mentor and tutor when working with others," says Cardinal.
When he finishes his Ph.D., Ben expects to return to Hong Kong, his family home. He hopes to receive a faculty position in a research university, where he can combine research and teaching.
"Both have an impact on improving people's health and social interactions," he says. "With research, we can develop ideas and inform public policy. With teaching, we can create a new generation of people who will go on to spread the message that physical exercise promotes a better quality of life."
Ben has a strong commitment to building cross-cultural ties among researchers in the areas of physical activity and aging. He says countries like China and the United States have a lot to learn from one another.
"Being the historical and geographical mid-point between China and many other countries including the United States, Hong Kong could potentially become the center for cross-cultural research in physical activity behaviors and aging," he says. "It is my aspiration to make this happen."