February 20, 2001

Kansas Alumni

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Contact: Jennifer Jackson Sanner, Alumni Association (785) 864-4760

Body of knowledge: KU's Exercise Physiology Laboratory

LAWRENCE -- When the New Year dawns amid resolutions to slim down and shape up, 38-year-old Matt Miller of Kansas City will round up several friends and business associates and drive to Lawrence.

As he has done for the past six years, Miller will lead his convoy of out-of-shape, middle-aged businessmen to Robinson Gymnasium, where he'll introduce them to Jeffrey Potteiger, director of the Exercise Physiology Laboratory run by the Department of Health, Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Kansas.

Under Potteiger's supervision, these usually deskbound men of commerce will undergo the kind of precise, state-of-the-art fitness testing that health clubs -- with their skinfold calipers, height and weight charts and one-size-fits-all exercise prescriptions -- can only dream of.

What each will get for his toil and sweat is a precise measure of two important indicators of his overall health: maximal oxygen uptake, or VO2 max, which quantifies the body's ability to get oxygen to the muscles; and body composition, the percentage of body weight divided between fat and nonfat tissue.

Both values are excellent indicators of not only a person's fitness, but of his risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer.

Like Miller, the members of his entourage are executives with hectic, stress-filled schedules.

"They want to shape up because they realize that if you're all business and don't take care of your health, eventually your health is going to affect business," Miller said.

By coming to the Robinson labs, they will take advantage of a community outreach program that lets the public benefit from the most up-to-date theories in exercise physiology in a university research lab considered among the most advanced in the nation.

"I think our mission is twofold," Potteiger said. "On one hand, we do some esoteric research that might not have much apparent application to the average person."

Some of that research focuses on top-flight athletic performance, a facet that naturally attracts the media spotlight in a culture that's fascinated with its athletic superstars.

But 70 to 80 percent of research conducted at the Exercise Physiology Laboratory and the neighboring Energy Balance Laboratory addresses general health issues that affect the widest possible range of people: the 99 percent of us who aren't athletes.

"We want to find out what kind of training programs work best, what ways people can exercise to improve their health and reduce their risks for disease, how to get people to lose weight most effectively, or maintain a healthy weight," Potteiger said.

"Those are the kinds of issues we're concerned with."

"I think sometimes we get a bad rap on campus, because people think we're just a bunch of P.E. teachers," says John Thyfault, who's working on his doctorate in exercise physiology. "But really the kind of research we're doing has the potential to play a larger role in helping society than any other research on campus."

Indeed, the potential applications of the research conducted in the two labs are, by all indications, huge.

According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health, 61 percent of Americans -- 123 million in all -- are overweight or obese. The percentage of children with weight problems, arguably the most troubling legacy of the country's sedentary lifestyle, has doubled since 1960, to nearly 20 percent. The percentage of obese children (the most seriously overweight who are at least 20 percent above their ideal weight) has nearly tripled.

And while weight is the most apparent and frequently cited evidence of America's unhealthy lifestyle, researchers argue that inactivity -- which can be one of the contributing factors to obesity -- is the root cause of poor fitness.

Even lean people who lead sedentary lifestyles have higher disease risks and can improve their health significantly by exercising regularly.

The cost of poor fitness, according to an advocacy group called Scientists Against Inactivity Related Diseases, is immense. Insufficient exercise is linked to at least 17 chronic diseases that cause 250,000 annual deaths and cost an estimated $1 trillion to treat.

Debunking the biggest exercise misconceptions -- including the "no pain, no gain" ethic that suggests you have to punish yourself to get in shape -- could pay big health dividends by encouraging more people to exercise.

"People who exercise at the right intensity, duration and frequency are more likely to persist," Potteiger said. "I try to break it down for my students very simply: We tend to avoid things we don't enjoy. If something makes you sore and exhausted, then you'd have to be pretty motivated to continue."

The good news is that researchers have discovered significant benefits from even moderate exercise.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, we used to say that if you wanted to get in shape, you had to do 30 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise at 70 to 80 percent of your maximal heart rate at least three days a week," Potteiger said. "Now we know that you can get a lot of benefit from a couple of 15-minute sessions a day."

"A lot of people think they don't have the time to exercise; they want to know, 'If I take a couple of 15-minute walks, will that help me?' Yes, it does."

Rather than label inactive people as lazy or unmotivated, the scientific approach to fitness tries to find ways to make exercise more enjoyable and more manageable -- in short, more doable for more people.

"The bottom line is that we conduct this research because we want to help people," Potteiger says. "I want to help people remain physically active, be physically fit and hopefully lead more productive lives."

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