WKU’s exercise science program: The power of research to improve health

From metabolism and biomechanics to immune function and the benefits of exercise on different populations, there’s an incredible variety of research happening at any given time in Western Kentucky University’s exercise science program, part of the School of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport.

“We have a really wide range of research interests among the exercise science faculty,” said Rachel Tinius, Ph.D., assistant professor. “I do pregnancy research, and Jill [Maples, Ph.D.], also does pregnancy and post-partum research, along with metabolic inflexibility among different populations. We have several faculty — Cody Morris [Ph.D., EP-C] and Mark Schafer [Ph.D., CEP, CSCS] — looking at more functional activities. For example, Dr. Schafer has a study looking at standing desks and how they can improve health over the course of time. Scott Arnett’s [Ph.D., CSCS, *D] research focuses on biomechanics and is also performance- and strength-based, such as ways you can become more efficient at a certain lift. Jason Crandall [Ph.D., EP-C] created a program for the aging population called Bingocize to help them stay active. And Lee Winchester [Ph.D.] studies diabetes and immune function with an emphasis on molecular-based research.”

Yet despite the wide range of concentrations, the department’s research shares a common focus.

“Most of our research involves community members and getting people active and healthy,” Tinius said.

That often includes solving real-world problems through data collection and analysis. To collect that data, exercise science professors often take a dually focused approach: create a program that’s targeted to a particular health problem or population, then collect real-world data from the participants as they progress through the program.

Two such programs — both underway — represent the work that happens within the exercise science department on a regular basis, as well as the sort of evidence-based outcomes and positive impacts that can result.

Exercise and pregnancy: Dispelling myths and improving health

As part of Tinius’s research on pregnancy, which includes examining the effects of various metabolic factors, she collaborates directly with The Medical Center-WKU Health Sciences Complex and Graves-Gilbert at WKU on a program that also functions as an evidence-based research study.

“We’re directly impacting the pregnant women in our community by enabling them to exercise for free and helping them,” Tinius said. “Pregnancy is an interesting time in which people are suddenly motivated by something bigger than themselves. We get a lot of women who maybe didn’t exercise before but realize there could be a benefit to the baby, so they’re motivated to change their lifestyle habits.”

Western Kentucky University is the only facility in Kentucky with a PEA POD, a device that measures body composition in newborns. Currently only 40 PEA PODs are in use throughout North America.

Participating patients receive information about the study, then Tinius and her team establish a baseline through interview questions and data collection of each participant’s daily activity level. Then, a random group gets access to six different places in the community where they can work out for free (the research team covers all associated costs).

For Tinius, this research is more than a career — it’s a calling.

“I did my doctorate at Washington University and was paired up with a mentor who was an expert in metabolism,” she says. “He had just launched a study that looked at type 2 diabetic women who became pregnant and how that metabolic complication (plus that of being pregnant) impacted the baby, mainly heart function. I did that for a matter of weeks and knew that was what I wanted to do: study pregnant women. Pregnancy is common and fascinating, yet there is still so much about it that we do not yet understand.”

This specific program also underscores a critical benefit of exercise science research — its potential to inform recommendations and guidelines that help a much larger population.

Take pregnancy, for example. Tinius is frustrated by some of the inaccurate information and myths that continue to persist regarding pregnant women and exercise. Through evidence-based programs like the one she’s running, the resulting data and analysis could help shift both perceptions and practice.

“That’s my biggest mission,” she says. “I may not get every woman active, but if we can at least get rid of some of these myths and help people understand that scientific evidence suggests exercise during pregnancy is healthy and safe, that’s a big step forward.”

Other pregnancy- and infant-related research is underway. For example, the focus of one study is infant assessments using collected cord blood and a new piece of medical equipment.

“Last summer, we obtained a PEA POD, which is a device that measures body composition in newborns,” Tinius said. “It’s a very expensive piece of equipment. There are only 40 in North America, and we’re the only facility in Kentucky with one.”

And under the direction of Maples, maternal metabolism research helps the team better understand how pregnant women metabolize fat. As more data are collected, there may be an opportunity to use analysis from both the exercise and maternal metabolism studies to help give physicians evidence-supported recommendations.

“My hope is that we can show that physical activity during pregnancy improves your ability to utilize fats, which will subsequently improve maternal and infant metabolic profiles,” Tinius said. “Or we might be able to suggest other factors that a physician could consider when making lifestyle recommendations to a patient.”

The exercise sensation that’s focused on the aging population

Before joining the faculty of WKU’s exercise science department, Crandall taught at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro. As part of one of his classes, he asked students to start an exercise program at a residential facility for older adults. The outcome was, simply put, a let down.

“They planned, did a lot of promotional work, and when it came time for them to do the program, no one showed up,” he said. “They were devastated, so we debriefed and talked about some of the reasons. We soon found out it was because everyone was down the hall playing bingo.”

Bingocize Participants

Jason Crandall, Ph.D., EP-C, created Bingocize®, a health promotion program that combines bingo and exercise. Bingocize® is now available at a variety of senior living facilities throughout Kentucky and the program itself has received approximately $1.3 million in grant funding.

That’s when the light went off in Crandall’s head and Bingocize® was born. The health promotion program combines bingo and exercise, and it’s been a hit since it launched.

“We probably had 15 people attend the first Bingocize® session and it kept growing,” Crandall said.

When Crandall came to WKU, he brought Bingocize® with him. Now that the program is established, the goal is to continue to promote and grow it. Data from Bingocize® has informed several research projects, and the program itself has received approximately $1.3 million in grant funding, including one last year that’s helped enable some critical growth.

“One really special grant we got about a year ago is a Civil Money Penalty grant from the U.S. Center for Medicare,” Crandall said. “That grant gives us money to put the Bingocize® program in nursing homes across Kentucky. At the same time, we partnered with eight other universities to train their students to do the same thing I’m doing with my students.”

Like other WKURF centers and departments, exercise science encourages students to pursue research interests and also includes a focus on research in the curriculum. In a course called Measurement and Evaluation, for example, students break into groups and develop a research project from start to finish. Some may choose to pursue a small project of their creation, while other students opt to work with a faculty member with a shared interest to help guide the research.

Bingocize® is also representative of another facet of exercise science research: the potential for collaboration.

“I’ve been really fortunate — what I’ve done with this program checks a lot of different boxes,” Crandall said. “From day one, I’ve collaborated with cognitive psychologist Matthew Shake [Ph.D.] because we know exercise has a positive effect on brain health. I also partnered with Jean Neils-Strunjas [Ph.D., CCC/SLP], a speech pathologist in Communication Sciences and Disorders, because she’s an expert in dementia. And it’s not just exercise science students participating in the research — we’ve got nursing, pre-PT and OT, Communication Sciences and Disorders, and biology. If it has to do with health science, it’s likely their students are participating in this because everyone recognizes they need to be addressing the older population.”

It’s that emphasis on the larger community that motivates so much of the work  happening within the exercise science program.

“I feel like our research is translational in nature,” Tinius said. “If you look at any of our projects, any of us could explain how they benefit the community.”