Hill climbs: Wellness center director sees promise, challenges in promoting health and fitness in Aurora


AURORA | James O. Hill is the type of person who won’t pass judgment when you drown your iced tea in Splenda and say it’s too late, or too early, or too cold outside to work out.

James Hill

As director of the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, Hill wholeheartedly understands that the idea of getting fit may seem burdensome. That’s why his outlook on health is holistic. Getting healthy isn’t about shedding pounds because two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, and the threat of obesity is more prevalent now than ever before, he says. It means focusing on all aspects of your health, including “mind, body and purpose.”

“It’s not just about losing weight,” Hill said. “If you lose weight and you’re not physically active and managing your stress, that’s only one tiny part of you being well.”

Hill helped create a center that focuses on improving a person’s overall health by offering science-based exercise and diet regimens as well as alternative therapies including acupuncture and massage therapy.

The center also boasts trained dieticians and psychologists to help with stress. Hill grew up in Tennessee, one of the fattest states in the country, but back then, obesity wasn’t yet a widespread problem. He received his Ph.D. in physiological psychology from the University of New Hampshire and previously worked in psychology, nutrition, exercise science and behavior at Emory University and Vanderbilt University before joining the University of Colorado. In the 1980s, Hill started researching how animals — specifically rats — regulate weight. A few years later, studies began to emerge that showed obesity in humans was becoming a major epidemic. He wondered why.

“I was realizing that it wasn’t just an interesting scientific question, it was a threat to health and quality of life to our country,” he said. “Unless we get a handle on this, it’s literally going to change the way we live.”

Throughout his life, Hill has wholeheartedly believed in balance. He’s never forsaken his favorite foods (sushi being one of them) in an effort to lose weight, and he dines out often while keeping a weekly exercise routine.

But that balance is hard to achieve, which is why he found the concept of a wellness center to be so intriguing.

With a grant from the Anschutz family, Hill was able to launch the idea for an all-under-one-roof health institution located in Aurora, a city that he says, frankly, needs help with fitness.

Aurora residents’ income and education levels aren’t as high as some places in Colorado, Hill says, and those are factors that directly inhibit maintaining healthy lifestyles. It’s no easy task motivating Aurora residents to do more for their health, but it’ll be worth the effort if he can persuade them that it’ll pay off in the long run, he said.

“If you look at the people in Colorado who are really most active, and into healthy lifestyles, they would tell you they do it not for their health but because it’s fun,” he said. “Somehow we’ve got to equate healthy lifestyle with fun and high quality of life and living, and I think we have to engage the whole state in this.”

One of his most successful ideas has been encouraging fifth graders to make the right decisions about healthy eating by infusing a bit of fun into a nutrition lesson. Hill teamed up with the Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek School districts at the beginning of the 2012 school year and gave teachers a general curriculum to follow. What resulted was an unprecedented enthusiasm for healthy lifestyles among the fifth graders who participated, he said.

“In my 10 years of teaching, this is probably one of the most engaging curriculums I’ve presented to kids in terms of providing motivation to be physically active and to understand nutrition,” said Christopher Magrin, K-8 physical education coordinator at Vista PEAK.

Hill said the curriculum doesn’t encourage restrictive eating. Instead, it promotes the sort of balance between food and exercise that is ubiquitous at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.

It’s a philosophy he stands by, and he hopes that the 5th graders will be empowered to choose healthy decisions on their own and then impart that wisdom to their parents.

“We never tell these kids ‘You can’t eat candy,’” Hill said. “What we tell them is how candy fits in, and if you choose to eat candy, then you need to balance that with activity.”