Sports Scientists See Their Work Yielding Gains In Public Health

But more visibility and funding are needed if their esoteric studies are to have impact beyond the playing field Like many sports scientists, David Lamb came to his profession by way of an interest in athletics. "I wanted to be a coach, but my [physical education] student teaching was one of the stereotypical worst experiences. So I decided to go back to school."

By | May 11, 1992

But more visibility and funding are needed if their esoteric studies are to have impact beyond the playing field
Like many sports scientists, David Lamb came to his profession by way of an interest in athletics. "I wanted to be a coach, but my [physical education] student teaching was one of the stereotypical worst experiences. So I decided to go back to school."

It was there, at Michigan State University, says Lamb--now a professor of preventive medicine and health at Ohio State University in Columbus--that "a charismatic professor convinced me we could save the world by studying exercise physiology."

To the public, and even to many scientists, the term "sports science" has everything to do with sports, and very little to do with science. But those involved in the burgeoning discipline--a self-designated group of researchers whose specialties range from biomechanics and neurology to psychology and sociology--say that's a limited perspective.

They say their work extends far beyond the kind of fluid dynamics studies that show why a knuckleball is hard to hit or the vision research that helped Kansas City Royals designated hitter George Brett change from a minor leaguer with hitting problems to a future Hall of Famer.

Instead, says Brian Sharkey, president of the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis, potential applications of sports science research will benefit the population as a whole, including--and, perhaps, especially-- couch potatoes.

"Since the '50s, [sports science research] has demonstrated that physical activity may be a vital factor in public health: that rather than get a small number of people highly fit, the most important thing we could do for the nation's health is get all adults to become physically active," says Sharkey, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Sports scientists say their growing awareness of the science's potentially broad public health applications poses new challenges for their profession. These include tackling a new, even broader range of research questions, many including expensive, logistically complicated epidemiological components; attracting more funding and government support for their work; and finding effective methods of translating research data into information accessible to physicians, athletics professionals, and the public.

Academic employment for sports science researchers has been on a roll for much of the past three decades, many sports scientists say. And opportunities for research scientists in kinesiology, biomechanics, neurology, and other exercise- related fields have increased sharply since 1965. Though some believe the field reached a plateau around 1985, with little actual increase in academic opportunities since then, observers say the job market for sports science researchers is still strong. "Many universities are opening programs in various kinds of sports and exercise science," says Sharkey. "And there are the armed forces labs, space research. I don't think Ph.D.'s need to worry much about finding work."

What many sports scientists do worry about, researchers say, is whether they can accomplish more through their research than simply creating new information. Sports science is an applied discipline, and many sports scientists are eager to see their basic research reach real people who will use it. But creating channels for information flow is difficult, these scientists say, and may require putting in place training and licensing requirements for sports professionals, such as trainers.

Rainer Martens, president of Human Kinetics Publishers of Champaign, Ill., started his company in the mid-1970s when he found that few journal or book publishers were interested in giving sports scientists a forum to share their research, even with fellow scientists. Today, the company publishes 19 refereed journals and 60 books in the sports sciences each year.

But Martens, a former research professor in sports psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, says scholarly publishing is barely half the job.

"There's a terrific need in this field to look at the application of the sports sciences to the other professions involved in sports--doctors, physical education teachers, fitness instructors, coaches," Martens says. "For example, there are 3 million coaches in [the United States] and an annual turnover rate of 40 percent among volunteer coaches. Those people can do a lot of good or a lot of harm depending on what they know or don't know."

Michael A. Nelson, an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico Medical Center in Albuquerque and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on sports medicine and fitness, says he first learned about the broad range of sports medicine- related issues when he volunteered as a team physician at a local high school in the mid-1970s. Nelson points out that physicians need new information from many scientific disciplines in order to promote patient fitness.

"When I volunteered to be team physician, none of us knew the scope of what I was getting into," Nelson says. "But the first day I went over to watch practice, I suddenly found myself fielding questions about diet, weight control, how to manage asthma while doing sports, how coaches should deal with low-level injuries....I found I needed a whole world of expert knowledge, most of which I didn't have and much of it not even available."

Nelson says his decade-and-a-half of involvement with young athletes has left him with a long wish list of questions for sports scientists to answer. "We know some, but there are so many areas of information that still need to be elucidated you can hardly begin to count them," he says. "And what we do know can make such a real difference. It's too bad that we're still operating so much on common sense in many areas, rather than on sound scientific data."

According to Nelson, subjects needing increased research attention include methods for assessing fitness, devices and methods for monitoring physical movement, relation- ships between fitness levels and long-term cardiovascular health, and correlations between muscular and neurological development and the physical movements involved in particular sports (such as keeping your eye on a ball coming toward you). In addition to the physical elements, he says, more needs to be known about the psychological factors that motivate or discourage participation in sports and exercise.

Lyle Micheli, an associate clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School, agrees with Nelson that more sports science investigation could benefit public health, adding that the current status of physical exercise in America creates some unprecedented conditions that increase the need for research.

"Many kids now participate in organized sports programs-- soccer or gymnastics twice a week, for example--while being sedentary all the rest of the time. No walking, biking, running around, horsing around," Micheli says.

And that situation, says Micheli, has apparently led to a large increase in sports injuries to children. "They've risen quickly to second place on the reasons for kids coming to emergency rooms," he says. "And we know this means that in a basic sense children today are less fit. But we don't have good data on general fitness and [its relationship to] the prevention of injuries. There are a lot of opinions but no really good data."

Part of the problem, according to Micheli, is that much of the research he and others are calling for includes difficult and expensive epidemiological components, while funding for sports science research has traditionally been hard to come by.

Study of the epidemiological aspects of physical activity requires researchers to have long-term access to a large, healthy, at-risk population. Getting access to such a large group can be difficult, Micheli explains. "You need the cooperation of an entire school district, for example, including kids, parents, administrators, educators," he says.

Such cooperation may be difficult or even impossible to get without significant government support and funding, researchers say. And, adds Micheli, "there's still not much funding in these areas. Research into fitness and physical exercise doesn't have as dramatic an appeal as some other areas of science, apparently."

Some sports science research is on the agenda at several federal agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the armed services research offices, which sponsor exercise science studies at their human performance laboratories; the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. But while officials at those agencies say their support for exercise science is increasing, they also acknowledge that, up to now, it's been a low budget priority.

Gregory Heath, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, says his agency is beginning to step up efforts in just the kind of long-term, large-scale studies that Micheli and others call important and difficult.

"We began a lot of these activities [studies of physical activity patterns among large, healthy populations] in '83 and '84, and since then there's always been some level of funding and support for them," he says.

"But the strength of that support comes and goes with the political agenda. The effort was just starting to take off when the AIDS thing blew up on us. Our program was one of many that suffered because of the urgency of that."

But now that the Public Health Service (of which CDC is a part) is focusing more on the health of children and the elderly, exercise studies may get more emphasis, Heath says. "Programmatically, they appear to be a higher priority now," he says. "For the first time, a unit [of CDC] will carry the label of `physical activity studies.' Before, such research fell under the jurisdiction of other groups, such as `health education.'"

There are five research slots in the new group, Heath says, with three of those slots currently filled. "I think that kind of reorganization shows we're really on a roll now, with potentially greater funding," he says.

In addition to funding problems, the challenge of disseminating up-to-date research to laypeople who could use it in their work requires finding scientists willing to translate their data into user-friendly form, not an easy task, Human Kinetics' Martens says: "We're data rich and information poor. There are so many bits and pieces--little facts floating out there. We need individuals to pull these together and link them into conceptual models, make them knowledge.

"But in academia--perhaps particularly in a young, immature field like this--scientists are afraid of bringing down the wrath of their colleagues if they put too much effort into applications."

Montana's Sharkey agrees with Martens that sports science information has many potential users. But he thinks the reward system in acadenia effectively prohibits scientists from communicating with a laypeople.

"There's a lot of very helpful [information] to share," Sharkey says. "But nobody's figured out how to make a living disseminating it. We have a lot of unused research, but disseminating and developing that research is a lesser- taught skill. I'm not sure we're ready to train Ph.D.'s to do that. In the university, we're still counting publications as a way to determine rewards. We haven't figured out how to reward teaching yet. I'm not sure the academy is ready to add a third function--getting the fruits of research out there to people who can use it."

To that end, many universities hope bachelor's and master's degree programs in exercise science will produce health and education professionals who will communicate state-of-the- art sports science information to the public.

But Sharkey and others say a widespread lack of training and licensing requirements for sports and fitness workers makes it difficult for graduates with this advanced knowledge to find jobs in which they can apply their training.

"At this point, we may be putting too many people with master's and bachelor's degrees into the field," Sharkey says. "Health clubs, corporate wellness programs, even schools don't have mandatory certification. And most don't pay people commensurate to their training. These people certainly have something to offer, but there are few clear- cut avenues to good employment for them at the moment."

Marcia Clemmitt is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.


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