The Body in Motion

Researchers with the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab are providing new insights into how even a small amount of exercise can cut the risk of disease in half.

KANNAPOLIS - If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution this year, you are not alone. The magazine Psychology Today reports almost half of the U.S. population made resolutions this year. And while the first few weeks go well, by February many people are already backsliding.

That’s where new research out of Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Lab might provide some new motivation to spur you on, especially if you are a middle school student or the parent of a young child. It turns out that childhood obesity, even at a young age, impacts health and well-being.

Let’s start with middle school students. 

Dr. David Nieman, the Director of Human Performance Lab, says the results of his study show that a little exercise goes a long way in preventing disease. And the benefits of exercise are realized pretty quickly, including increased muscle strength and a reduced risk of diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“We’re hoping that this study leaves a great impression on the kids because they learn through very sophisticated research-level testing how they compare with what is recommended for body fat level and fitness,” Dr. Nieman tells me as he shows me around the lab. There are treadmills and stationary bicycles and other exercise equipment situated at various stations around the lab. Researchers in white lab coats are guiding students through a variety of workouts and recording data as they perform.

“What we’re finding is that even with middle school students who are overweight, oxygen consumption as well as muscle power, strength and stamina,” Dr. Nieman continues. “Basically everything goes south quickly when you are overweight."

I introduce myself to one young man who is on the treadmill. He’s just had a breathing mask removed that was measuring his oxygen level while he was on the treadmill.

Caleb Douglas is the quarterback of the Rockingham Middle School Raiders. He and some of his teammates at their school in Richmond County are having their physical fitness levels evaluated. Richmond County is one of four in the state which has students who took part in the fitness study.

“So what did you learn from this study?” I ask. “It seems to me you are in pretty good shape.”

“I need to work on my sustaining power and my aerobic power,” Douglas tells me. "I’m strong but I need to build up my stamina.”

The program has run for two years. About 500 students, boys and girls, have participated. The students' average age is 13. Researchers use a variety of tests to measure body composition, muscle strength, and aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Students are tested at the beginning and end of the school year. In between, students are taught concepts that promote an understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics combined with physical fitness.

“So what did you take from this?” I ask Curtis Freeman, another eighth grader and member of the football team.

“It was good to learn about body fat and endurance,” Freeman tells me, as he wipes perspiration from his face with a towel. “It was pretty hard, the treadmill was the hardest thing.”

Chris Dennis is the middle school science teacher who helped arrange the school’s participation in the program. Dennis hopes student will share their lessons with classmates, not only by sharing information in class but by example.

“It will also increase their knowledge of health science, how to live and eat healthier, and how combining exercise with their intake of nutrients will help them to be healthier adults moving forward,” Dennis adds.

Researchers found nearly half of the boys and four in ten girls were classified as overweight or obese, following the body-mass-index guidelines published by the federal centers for disease control. The higher the child’s body fat, the less fit they were, aerobically and anaerobically. Researchers concluded that obesity, even at a young age, impacts health and well-being.

It’s recommended that middle school students get 60 minutes of exercise per day, and 30 minutes of exercise is recommended for adults. However, Dr. Nieman is quick to point out that exercise doesn’t have to be done all at once (even taking the stairs can be counted in the time).

“Exercise can be added up just like change - a nickel here, a quarter there," says Dr. Nieman. “And that’s what it is, just putting in 60 minutes a day, and that isn’t a whole lot and that’s the great finding of the study. Once kids learn that and practice it, all of the bad things produced by a lack of exercise can be erased.”

The study also showed that over the course of the program, and the school year, follow up tests found a reduction in body fat and improved indicators of strength and physical health. Children, with properly supervised physical activity, can improve their health and are more likely to continue a healthy lifestyle when they see the benefits.

Once the exercise lesson is learned, and followed, it can make for a lifetime of health.

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