Researcher helps found, advance study of physical activity

ASU Regents' Professor Barbara Ainsworth

Editor's Note: The 2013 ASU Regents' Professors will be honored at a special induction ceremony at 4:30 p.m., Feb. 6, in the Galvin Playhouse on the Tempe campus.

When it comes to staying healthy, Americans are sliding down the global health scale. More than two-thirds of the population of the United States is overweight or obese, leading to an increase in the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other health complications. Our sedentary lifestyle is partly to blame.

Barbara Ainsworth, associate director of the ASU School of Nutrition and Health Promotion and professor of exercise and wellness in the College of Health Solutions, has dedicated much of her career to the public health impact of physical activity.

It’s a fairly new field of study, having grabbed the attention of government researchers only 25 or so years ago.

It was in 1995 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine first recommended individuals get 30 minutes of moderate activity each day. They concluded it would prevent disease, not just enhance cardiovascular health.

It was Ainsworth’s seminal work in developing a tool to accurately measure the intensity of physical activity during various tasks that helped researchers arrive at the conclusion.

She was the lead author of the Compendium of Physical Activities, a work used by researchers around the world to calculate the energy expenditure of activities ranging from gardening to vacuuming to downhill skiing. It is one of the most highly cited references in the United States, and has made her an internationally recognized expert in the field as she continually updates the Compendium online.

First published in 1993, the Compendium was revised in 2003 and 2011, and is the activity measurement tool most widely used by researchers around the globe.

Despite a reputation that makes her in demand as a speaker, Ainsworth remains a prolific and productive researcher and has developed interventions that promote physical activity among vulnerable populations, such as minority women and older adults.

She helped develop Madres para la Salud (Mothers for Health), a study of post-pregnancy Hispanic women that provided a walking program to help them lose weight after a birth. Women were organized into groups for social support and would meet to walk as they pushed their strollers.

Several women in the program lost a great deal of weight, though the average weight loss was small. Her team hopes to conduct a follow-up study adding diet to the program.

“It’s not a social norm for many Latinas to participate in exercise,” and multiple pregnancies without losing weight after birth contribute to the development of obesity in that population, Ainsworth says. “Safety and access are a concern, so they found safe and convenient places to walk in Phoenix.

“The challenge for us as researchers is to understand who needs help the most, and to intervene with people at the lowest levels of physical activity. Extreme poverty is the biggest hurdle, associated with a lack of healthy food and safe places to exercise. People of color and residents of rural areas tend to be most at risk, along with older people.”

An unspoken advertisement for her research, Ainsworth bounds down the stairs to meet an interviewer, squeezing in some time before leaving for a conference in Dubai. She often takes 30 minutes during the afternoon for a brisk walk in the streets of Phoenix, and she tries to ride her horse several times a week and to hike on weekends.

But she sympathizes with people who are confined to their desks at work, or who live in neighborhoods with no safe and convenient places to walk. She advocates public policy changes that would lead to the reengineering of cities with sidewalks and bike lanes, and the provision of neighborhood facilities for youth sports and other supervised activities.

She believes forward-thinking companies will offer opportunities for their employees to be active during the work day, both as an amenity and a way to reduce health insurance premiums.

As the president of the American College of Sports Medicine in 2011-12, Ainsworth met with senators and congressmen to support legislation for physical activity. She pushed for a concussion law that would require children suspected of having a concussion during a sporting event to be removed from play until cleared by a doctor. The law passed in Arizona and in nearly every state nationally.

Currently, she is gearing up to conduct a behavioral risk study with the Arizona Department of Health Services, hoping to engage 800 Arizona residents to wear a pedometer for seven days after they complete a lengthy phone survey.

Keith Lindor, executive vice provost and dean of the College of Health Solutions, says Ainsworth is also a generous collaborator, a supportive mentor of junior faculty and graduate students, and a strong advocate for the advancement of qualified women through the ranks of academia.

“Throughout her career, Dr. Ainsworth has collaborated with individuals across multiple disciplines and professions, demonstrating her commitment to interprofessional research, education and practice,” he says. “Through her work, she addresses one of the most critical societal issues of our times.”