February 2010 cover SCAN"College of St. Catherine St. Catherine University
February 2010
 
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To Your Health

Mark Blegen, assistant professor of exercise and sport science, offers advice on food and exercise for all seasons.

BY KAREN K. HANSEN | PHOTO BY REBECCA ZENEFSKI ’10

When Mark Blegen became an assistant professor at St. Catherine University in August 2007, he ready had a winning track record as a professor, researcher, adviser and program leader at Springfield College in Massachusetts and Mount Union College in Ohio.

But the opportunity to return to the Midwest and put his stamp on an exercise and sport science program beckoned the alumnus of Kent State (Ph.D.), St. Cloud State University (M.S.) and St. Olaf College (B.A.).

Teaching at a women’s college has been "a wonderful surprise," he says. "Right now, I can’t imagine teaching co-ed again. The women in class respond, react, even think differently than the co-ed classes I have taught. They come at things from unique perspectives that have to do not only with being women but also with being the type of student who comes to St. Kate’s. We have a
competitive bunch of students here. They know where they’re going, and they’re very dedicated about it."

Blegen has dedicated a lot of energy to rewriting the exercise and sport science curriculum and preparing the program for a national accreditation review, which it passed in January. He also led a one-month course, "Health, Fitness and Lifestyle in Thailand," during the January 2010 term.

In April 2008, the American College of Sports Medicine named Blegen a Fellow, its highest honor, in recognition of his distinguished achievements in research and service. Among his current research areas are the influence of food environments on what people eat, the impact of an urban tennis program
on various components of fitness, and strength and conditioning for athletes and for middle-aged and older adults.

Through papers and presentations, Blegen shares his science-based expertise not only with athletes, academicians and students, but also with St. Kate’s
community members who want to improve their health and fitness in the New Year and beyond.

"We are becoming an aging population, and our children are becoming more obese. Exercise science is only going to become more relevant."

— Mark Blegen, Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Science

What is exercise and sport science, and how is it relevant in the real world? Exercise science is the study of human performance, including health and wellness, strength and conditioning, weight management and athletic ability. Exercise and fitness professionals need to be at the table when we talk about healthcare. What sometimes gets lost in the debate is prevention. We know that as a person’s body-mass index goes up, the healthcare dollars spent each year go up proportionally. If we put effort in at the front end — in getting physical education in schools and creating effective exercise programs before someone becomes obese or injured — we can save a whole lot of money.

We hear a lot of talk about childhood obesity in this country. The newest statistics show that the average child is watching 4.49 hours of TV every day. This pattern of sitting becomes incredibly difficult to change later in life. A study came out last spring showing that people’s mortality rate is directly related to how much they sit — regardless of what kind of shape they’re in — even if they exercise three hours a day.

What is some of the most cutting-edge research in your field? It is dealing with how exercise impacts the actual structure and functioning of the brain. Exercise alters biochemistry much like serotonin reuptake inhibitors do; it provides the same benefits as Prozac.

People who exercise during the day are more focused and attentive, and they have greater capacity for the amount of work they do. People who regularly and consistently exercise feel better about themselves in general. They’re better with their time management.

The media inundate us with information about how we should eat and exercise. Doesn’t everybody already know what they should be doing? The popular media take very complicated issues and boil them down to the simplest common denominator. People know a little bit and think they’re experts, and they shouldn’t. On a very basic level, yes, if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you’re going to lose weight. But within that, it’s so
complicated psychologically. It goes to self-esteem and motivation, life issues and stress. For some people, weight management is a moment-by-moment struggle. The reason so many people regain weight that they’ve lost is that it’s not simple.

We need professionals who understand all of this, who have a bachelor’s degree and maybe advanced degrees, rather than some online certificate that says, "Hey, I know how to tell you how to run."

What do you recommend for those just starting to exercise and for those who already exercise a lot and eat healthfully? The most honest and direct thing anybody can do — whether they want to lose weight, change their lifestyle, or run a 5K or a marathon — is to talk to a certified exercise professional. People will spend an awful lot of money on weight loss pills, when they could easily take that 50 bucks and have a one-hour session with a qualified professional.

Running shoesEven with people who get it — and I’ve worked with Olympic athletes — there is room for improvement. I would tell athletes the same thing: Spend time with a professional. If you have a goal, such as to run faster, there are probably some strategies and different training methods you’re not aware of.

Is interval training one way to mix it up? Yes. Interval training intersperses lighter exercise with harder exercise. You can do intervals on a bike or an elliptical or when running. You can change the pace or resistance. You wouldn’t want to do interval training every day, but it’s one of the best ways to improve your performance. It livens things up a little bit and keeps you motivated.

How would you, as a professional, work with new exercisers? First, I want to know what their goals are and why and how much time they have to pursue exercise. Then I would craft a program that helps them meet their goals gradually. Not everyone wants to hear "gradually."

For beginners, you start with certain standards and guidelines for exercise. For an experienced runner doing the same routine every day, we need to mix that up. One of the most overlooked strategies for runners is strength and resistance training. Even if we have three runners with the same goal, there are going to be three different paths to get there. You don’t want to pay attention to any personal trainer who says that he or she has discovered one method that works for everyone.

Are there any health-and-fitness tips that can make a difference for everyone? When I give presentations, I never fail to surprise people with information about how environment influences eating. The number of people you’re eating with, the lighting and temperature, how a menu appears (such as using French words), the plate size, the shape of the food — all impact how much you eat.

We’re also looking at what foods do to us and how food companies use that to their advantage. Fat, sugar and salt change your brain biochemically and make you crave them.

What reliable sources can readers consult to learn more? Dr. Brian Wansink’s research-based Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam Dell, 2006) is fun and quick. I also recommend the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning
Association
.


Karen K. Hansen is a writer, fitness enthusiast and professional clarinetist
who lives in Minneapolis.

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Mark Blegen, Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Science