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