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Graduate student Karen Swanson collects data while 12-year-old Rachel Muller tests the XBox game Dance Dance Revoloution.

Karen Swanson, a graduate student in kinesiology, collects data while 12-year-old Rachel Muller tests the XBox game Dance Dance Revolution as an exercise activity.

A field in motion

Kinesiology research involves more docs than jocks

By Rebecca Ganzel

November 18, 2005

Kinesiology--the study of human bodies in motion--has been called a lot of things in its long history at the University of Minnesota. But one thing it can't be called today is "small."

From its origins in the 1920s as, among other things, the Physiological Hygiene Laboratory in Memorial Stadium, the School of Kinesiology now has the largest undergraduate class enrollment of the College of Education and Human Development's six departments. The school, which offers the B.S., M.Ed., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees, encompasses six main laboratories and dozens of sub-laboratories all over campus (for instance, the Human Performance Research Laboratory in Mariucci Arena).

And it's very, very good.

"We are ranked among the top five American kinesiology programs," says Michael Wade, who estimates that the University is one of about 55 institutions in the United States that grant Ph.D.s in the field.

Until September, Wade was the school's director and the man who has consciously shaped its programs since he arrived, 19 years ago, at what was then the School of Physical Education and Recreation. Wade stepped down in celebrated fashion, complete with a "roast" by his colleagues, and Mary Jo Kane, sport sociology professor in the school and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in sport, has agreed to serve as the department's next director.

Like any department that prepares some students for a specific profession (in this case, teaching physical education) and others for more specialized research work, the field "has always struggled with the question: 'Are we a profession, or are we a discipline?'" Wade says. He firmly believes that kinesiology is both, which is one reason why he changed the school's name upon becoming director.

"If I tell you I've got a degree in physical education" (which, incidentally, he does, from Loughborough College in Leicestershire, England), "you'd probably think I was a teacher," Wade says. "Nothing wrong with that; teaching is an honorable profession."

But the majority of graduates of the School of Kinesiology do not become teachers. They go on to become physical therapists, doctors, sports-facility managers, nurses, medical researchers, and coaches--"a whole range of disciplines," he says. "The umbrella of 'kinesiology' allows all those interpretations to flourish. It's like having a 'Department of Religion' instead of a 'Department of Judeo-Christianity.'"

Wade's own research work focuses on children with development coordination disorders. His colleague, Donald Dengel, also works with children. But while Wade's approach is more psychological--in a current project, he is looking at how children evaluate what they perceive, and how this affects their motor coordination--Dengel works on the molecular level, observing how the lining of the blood vessel, the endothelium, responds to "stress," including exercise.

Putting stress on the vascular system is a good thing, says Dengel, who is associate professor of kinesiology, and co-director of the Body Composition Human Performance Laboratory, which is housed in the University's General Clinical Research Center.

"'Sheer stress' sounds bad, but it is exercise for the blood vessel; it enjoys that," Dengel says. "Our idea is to target pre-puberty, when children's cardiovascular systems are still pliable." After puberty, factors like obesity, genetics, and lack of exercise set many people's cardiovascular health on a downhill path, laying the foundations for heart disease. "We want to catch them before the damage is permanent--when you can still get the blood vessel back to normal flexibility."

Not many places in the world track children's vascular health. Dengel can think of only two other labs like his, one in Australia and the other in Florida. When he came here from the University of Michigan in 2000, his specialty was geriatrics, at the opposite end of the lifecycle. But working at the College of Education and Human Development, with its vast databases to draw upon for subjects of studies, helped change his focus.

Better ways to measure bones

Moira Petit originally thought she would end up as a coach. At St. Olaf College, where she majored in psychology and sport science, she ran track and cross country. But she got drawn into research for the long haul, getting a Ph.D. in human kinetics at the University of British Columbia. Now she's turning her energy to studying how exercise affects bone development and growth, especially in children.

It was a $175,000 machine that drew her to the University of Minnesota, where she is now assistant professor. "One problem in the field is that the [traditional] way of measuring bone density, DEXA, wasn't adequate," Petit says. But the School of Kinesiology, which she joined last January after three years on the medical faculty at Pennsylvania State University, recently supplanted dual-energy X ray absorptiometry (DEXA) with a new technology, peripheral quantitative computed tomography (pQCT)--partly, Petit says, at her urging.

The new machine "shows not only how much bone is there, but how it's shaped, and how strong it is." It can also measure muscle, and show how muscle and bone respond together to "loading," or stress. In short, it's just the ticket when you're studying things like exercise intervention in overweight elementary-school students, or musculo-skeletal health and injuries in college athletes.

As a discipline, Petit says, kinesiology is attractive because it is so varied. "It could fit under medicine, or under public health, as well as education," she says. She loves being able to collaborate with colleagues across the spectrum, from Dr. Kristine Ensrud of the School of Public Health, to Ph.D. candidate Brock Dubbels, a public-school teacher. "Being multidisciplinary is key," she says. "And I like making my work more about education and working with schools."

Portrait of a failed champion

The Cooke Hall office of Arthur Leon, a medical doctor and professor of kinesiology, is festooned with faded framed clippings of him in shorts and tennis shoes, trying, and failing, to win.

"I've been a runner most of my life," says Leon, now in his 70s, "and I could never understand why I couldn't be a championship runner." Starting in high school, he trained as hard as he could, but he constantly found himself in the middle, not the top: good, but not good enough. His young son put his finger on it when he watched his father come in fourth in a race on Staten Island in the 1960s: "Daddy, why were you jogging when everyone else was running?"

What all this taught Leon was the importance of genetics. "If you don't have the genes, you can't be a champion," he says. "And not everybody responds equally to exercise." These truths have been borne out by the Heritage Family Study, one of the many studies Leon has participated in over his long career, and an important one by any measure. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, this $22 million study, now in its 12th year, is following 200 cross-generational families (some 800 individuals) to find out how much a person's physiological change is governed by environment, and how much by genetics. So far, genetics is winning by a long shot.

Another picture Leon points to with pride is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new food pyramid, viewable at Pyramid. "See that guy running up the steps on the side?" he says. "We did that."

Specifically, a study he and others published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1987 was the first definitive assertion that 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day was the minimum to bring a person's "good" cholesterol up by about 15 percent, regardless of what they ate. With 90 minutes a day, Leon says, the subjects (all men) could basically eat whatever they wanted and still lose 25 percent of their body weight. Every time you see that "30 minutes" figure, think of Dr. Leon.

"The studies we have done are now the standard," Leon says proudly. Many of them were carried out at the old Physiological Hygiene Laboratory in Memorial Stadium. When it was torn down in 1995, the new 4,500-square-foot Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene and Exercise Science, which Leon directs, was built on roughly the same spot, in the basement of the University Recreation Center. In homage to its old location, the stadium's Gate 27, every one of the new lab's many rooms is "Room 27," from 27A to 27U. According to Dengel, it is the oldest continuing exercise-physiology facility in the country.

Seeing the wheel

Physical education, pliable blood vessels, strong bones, motor-skill development, genetics in athletes, the role of perception in coordination--all these are part of kinesiology, and more besides.

"Think of kinesiology as a wagon wheel, with movement at its heart," offers Wade. "There are many spokes: exercise science, physiology, the psychological or behavioral response to movement. All are equally important.

"Even though each of them covers only a small portion of the field," he says, "every one of our professors will tell you that they work they do is the most important." Wade pauses. "And that's exactly the way I want it."

Edited from an original article in Link, fall 2005, the alumni publication of the College of Education and Human Development.