New center studies the right dose of exercise to fight disease

The UAB Center for Exercise Medicine studies what type of exercise, and how much, is best for people with hypertension, cancer and more.

When retiree John Yow, 61, was diagnosed with invasive squamous cell carcinoma last summer, he was ready to fight. Through seven months of multiple surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, Yow realized the weight training he had been doing as a participant in an exercise study before his diagnosis helped give him some of the physical strength he needed to survive head and neck cancer.

"The weight-lifting I was doing had me in good shape and gave me strength that I was able to use when I was sick to help me make it through all of my treatments," Yow says. "And now that I am in remission and exercising again, I've noticed my flexibility is better, I'm a little bit stronger and I feel better every day. My goal now is to get back to as normal as I can."

What if the exercise Yow did before his diagnosis — and is doing again now that he is in remission — is part of the reason he has survived? That and many questions like it are ones researchers hope to answer in a new center – possibly the first of its kind in the country – at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The UAB Center for Exercise Medicine is bringing together physicians and scientists from specialties across medicine and health-related disciplines to study the optimal exercise treatments for specific diseases. The goal is to understand the necessary frequency, type and volume of exercise needed on a weekly basis to help treat or prevent a disease.

"We've known for a long time that exercise is good for our health," says Marcas Bamman, Ph.D., director of the center. What we don't really know, he says, is the optimal prescription for, say, high blood pressure or diabetes. Are they the same? What mode of exercise is best – strength training, endurance training or a combination?

Bamman, who has spent more than 15 years studying exercise and its affects on aging, says the center is intended to foster collaborative, interdisciplinary studies to develop exercise in a prescriptive manner for many different types of diseases and conditions, using a dose-response approach much like you would a medication. For example, one study is examining four different exercise prescriptions to see which most effectively reverses the de-conditioning of muscle with age, and another is reviewing the type of exercise that's best for people who are insulin-resistant and predisposed to Type 2 diabetes.

"Some studies will determine how medications and exercise mix to treat different diseases," Bamman says. "We want to know how you best meld a prescription-drug regimen with exercise. There are situations in which an exercise program can enhance or negatively affect the efficacy of a drug. We need to know what those drug-exercise interactions look like and figure out how we deal with those."

Bamman says the new center will build on the initial support and interest of more than 40 scientists and clinicians from 13 departments across UAB. Future plans call for studies on joint repair and replacement, Parkinson's disease, heart disease and childhood obesity.

"The goal overall is to determine how we can best intervene with exercise in specific diseases to have the greatest impact on quality of life," Bamman says.