John Goin became a human guinea pig at the urging of his wife.
The retired dentist from Champaign played a little golf and worked in his yard, but Shirley Goin thought he could use more exercise.
She "said that I should not be so sedentary," Goin, 74, recalled recently.
So he answered an advertisement in The News-Gazette from University of Illinois researchers studying the impact of exercise on senior citizens.
Not just on their bodies, but on their brains, which is what found Goin spending time in an MRI machine before and after a nine-month walking program. He later ended up in another UI study in which he played the equivalent of video games while wearing something like a motorcycle helmet covered in a polka dot pattern of electronic sensors.
Goin is one of a small army of area residents – from children to older folks and plenty of college students – who participate in UI research studies every year.
Though the Champaign-Urbana campus doesn't do a lot in the way of touchy medical research involving, for instance, invasive surgical procedures or experimental drugs, largely the purview of the UI Medical School in Chicago, it still requires people for a diverse array of studies.
"We mostly do behavioral and social science research," said Susan Keehn, director of the UI's Institutional Review Board, which reviews proposed studies involving human subjects to make sure safety protocols are followed.
Methods moms use that are effective in helping kids with their homework, for example. The impact of exercise on both the brain structure of seniors and their ability to perform mental gymnastics, as well as the robustness of their immune systems. Accident risk from using even hands-free cellphones.
Dating habits of college students. The best ways to present information on diabetes so patients will make use of it. The social structure of multiplayer online computer games. The taste of chewing gum made with a base of corn zein. Whether tall skinny glasses or short fat ones prompt partiers to drink more.
To name just a few.
Like Goin, Connie Johnson of Urbana thought participating in a UI study, which she signed up for after a friend encouraged her, would be good exercise – for her mind rather than her body.
In one project, she spent time over four days in the driving simulator at the UI's Beckman Institute – a Saturn sedan surrounded by movie screens projecting computer-controlled scenery that makes it seem like the car is moving – reacting to flashing lights and to the vehicles on the virtual highway around her.
"I think it's important to keep your mind active," said Johnson, who reads a lot to do so, among other things. "I thought (participating) would be interesting, and I had the time to do it."
Time is one of the things subjects in studies locally give up to participate. The latest study by UI psychology Professor Art Kramer and colleagues involves directed exercising three days a week for a year, along with MRI scans, stress and blood tests, a bunch of record keeping, and more.
"It's much harder to get people than you think," said UI kinesiology Professor Edward McAuley, who's heading the study looking at the impact of a long-term exercise program on multiple aspects of senior citizens' lives, from how spry their minds are to whether their dispositions are more sunny as a result.
UI applied family studies Professor Laurie Kramer, married to Art Kramer, fairly marvels at the extent to which people let her intrude in her studies of sibling relationships.
"I'm videotaping and audio taping their personal and family lives," said Kramer, who's worked with some families for more than a dozen years.
Kramer offered her families copies of the tapes, which included some gems like kids playing with no adults around to influence them and no apparent concern for the camera.
"Some of the things on these tapes were just amazing," Kramer said.
Besides great home movies, researchers and participants say people are motivated to volunteer for a variety of reasons.
Some studies pay, albeit not much, for subjects' time. The money is scrutinized by university oversight officials and kept low intentionally so as not to be enough to coerce people into participating.
Art Kramer doesn't think the, say, $20 an hour he pays subjects for bearing with an MRI session is much of a factor in attracting participants, except maybe for students.
"College students, they want the money for beer," he joked.
UI Professor Ed Diener, an internationally recognized expert on happiness and ways to measure and understand its role and importance in our lives, got people on the Forbes 200 richest list to participate in one of his studies. (He found them only marginally happier than the average Joe.) They certainly didn't do it for the money.
"It's a curiosity motive," Diener said. "They think it's kind of interesting."
He said people who aren't terribly wealthy express the same sen-timent, in addition to a desire to learn something about themselves and to help advance knowledge in gen-eral.
Laurie Kramer said people she works with say they see potential value in her research on family relationships because the findings might be useful in their own families.
McAuley has some study junkies, folks who participate as kind of a hobby. But a lot of his subjects are people like Goin.
"People are not ignorant of what is good for them," he said. "I think in many ways, people want to change and what we offer is a ready-made (program) in which they can change."
Goin, for one, met a walking buddy in the exercise study he participated in and now walks five days a week.
"I would never have done it otherwise," he said.
Mildred Gerard, 62, of Savoy and John Hummel, 65, of Urbana both think the yearlong study by McAuley, Kramer and collaborators will help motivate them to get back into exercising regularly.
Hummel, a retired agricultural engineer at the UI, played racquetball before his job put him on the road a lot.
"Five years of sitting behind the computer, sitting behind the wheel and eating fast food, I gained 20 pounds," he said. "I needed some motivation. You have a regimen (in the UI study). I think it will be good for me."
Besides advertising in the newspaper, UI researchers use a variety of techniques to generate participants, from information tables at school registration to handing out fliers at park district senior events and hanging posters in doctors' offices. Many campus bulletin boards are festooned with calls for volunteers.
UI Professor Denise Park, who co-directs the Center for Healthy Minds, also uses mass mailings. She said the center maintains a pool of around 900 potential participants.
"We're always constantly updating and trying to get more people," Park said. "It's actually almost a full-time job to manage."