Exercise scientists develop unique insights into major diseases
Depression. Obesity. Chronic inflammation.
These medical conditions draw researchers across the spectrum of health, social, and physical sciences.
But there’s a department in the School of Arts and Sciences that has staked out a unique approach to studying all of those afflictions.
Welcome to the Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies.
The fast-growing department serves more than 1,000 undergraduates, offering three science options and another in sport management.
“It has grown by leaps and bounds,” says acting Chair Neil Dougherty. “The pattern of medicine today, which looks at the whole body rather than just isolated aspects of one’s life, has had a tremendous impact on our field.”
Professors Brandon Alderman, Sara Campbell, and Greg Henderson are among the newest faculty members in the department’s science concentrations. The three bring a passion for teaching and research, and a commitment to addressing major public health issues through the lens of exercise.
During Alderman’s recent research, for example, students battling depression engaged in brisk aerobic workouts as well as meditation at campus recreation centers.
“I am particularly interested in the effect of exercise on mental health,” said Alderman, who is collaborating on the study with faculty from the Psychology department and the Center for Alcohol Studies.
As an exercise scientist, Alderman’s research mission was to acquire data about changes in the students’ cardiovascular responses, and the electrical activity of their brains using EEG.
“It’s very exciting because nobody really has a full grasp of the precise mechanisms by which exercise works to cause a lessening of depression,” Alderman said. “Our approach gives us a better chance of understanding the finer neurophysiological details.”
The three professors were all biology majors in college who saw exercise science as the natural path for their interest in life science. “One of the great things about exercise is you can apply it to anything,” Campbell said. “The whole concept of using exercise to combat disease has always fascinated me.”
Campbell’s current work may shed light on inflammation, which is a common characteristic of some of the most intractable illnesses. She and her students are exploring how fat molecules can compromise the intestinal lining, leading to inflammation.
She said exercise science is a particularly rewarding field because it involves complex science yet also has the potential to help patients take more control over their own health.
“Our primary question in this research is: how does fat influence the intestinal integrity?” she said. “But we’re also asking: how can we use exercise to treat and prevent this?”
Henderson too is focused on fat, but his specialty is the metabolic system, and how exercise contributes to the breakdown of fat molecules. His recent research, in collaboration with Professor Shawn Arent, focused on obese adults, exploring the impact of a single bout of exercise prior to a meal.
Accordingly, he employs sophisticated life science technology, such as isotopes and mass spectrometry, to gain a deep look at the metabolic process and to learn how exercise changes the relationships between different types of fats in the body.
“I’d like to make discoveries that can be relevant to heart disease, and type 2 Diabetes, but I think it’s incomplete to study those diseases outside of the context of exercise,” he said. “Exercise directly affects those metabolic pathways that set the stage for the diseases.”
Students majoring in exercise science have their sights set high, with goals that include medical school, graduate research, and careers in physical therapy and fitness management.
“What I like about this major is that it gives you a whole body perspective,” Stephen Shikhel, a member of Campbell’s research team, said. “It takes what I’ve learned from the traditional sciences and puts it back in relation to the whole body.”
Ryan Lavell, a member of Alderman’s research team, plans on going to medical school. He hopes one day that exercise science will move to the forefront of modern medicine.
“A lot of doctors today can prescribe exercise but it may be very general,” he said. “But as exercise scientists practicing medicine, we can provide more accurate and more precise programs that might ultimately help to heal people.”
View a video of Brandon Alderman's research collaboration with faculty from the Department of Psychology and the Center for Alcohol Studies.