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NMSU Kinesiology research tracks physical activity across the lifespan

Eryn Murphy arrived at New Mexico State University as an undergraduate student on a swim scholarship. She initially majored in nutrition with a minor in exercise science, but eventually realized she was more interested in exercise science and switched majors. She quickly fell in love with NMSU’s Department of Kinesiology and Dance.


Children playing
Children at Hillrise Elementary participated in the Aggie Play program last year. Aggie Play incorporates active women role models from NMSU athletics and the kinesiology department who lead girls in third through fifth grade in physical activity games twice a week throughout the school year. Aggie Play recently received a $212,000 grant from the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation to continue the program at two additional schools in Las Cruces. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chavez)
Woman in a lab
New Mexico State University kinesiology student Josi Gabaldon works with a sample at a biosafety cabinet inside one of the new labs at Rentfrow Hall. Extensive and groundbreaking research into the human progression of physical activity, from childhood to adulthood, is going on in labs at Rentfrow Hall and the James B. Delameter Activity Center at NMSU, as well as participating schools and community centers locally. (NMSU photo by Andres Leighton)

She received her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from NMSU in 2013, returned home to Washington state and received her master’s degree in exercise science from Western Washington, and is back at NMSU working on her doctorate in kinesiology.

“The instructors and professors here are so incredibly supportive and pushed me to take chances that I absolutely would not have taken without that push,” said Murphy, whose research focuses on falls in older adults. “To walk into a program that already has established lines of research made a lot of my work easier in that I had a support system that was interested in what I was working on and wanted to work on. NMSU has one of the most amazing kinesiology programs ever.”

Many people may think of kinesiology as a pathway to becoming a coach or athletic trainer, but some may not realize that extensive and groundbreaking research into the human progression of physical activity, from childhood to adulthood, is going on in labs at Rentfrow Hall and the James B. Delameter Activity Center at NMSU, as well as participating schools and community centers locally.

The addition of the labs at Rentfrow, combined with the renovation of the former dance studios at the Activity Center that have been turned into kinesiology lab spaces, have made for one of the best kinesiology programs in the state, if not the entire Southwest, said kinesiology professor Bob Wood.

But some of the kinesiology department’s research is extending well beyond the NMSU campus labs. Kinesiology professor Kim Oliver has been working on several projects across the globe to study physical activity among teenage girls.

“I have been studying curriculum and instructional strategies for working with adolescent girls for the last 20 years,” Oliver said. “I started by trying to understand how girls learn to think and feel about their bodies because that has such an impact on their health-related decisions. I was hoping to find ways of making physical education more relevant for girls because adolescence is when girls start dropping out of physical activity.”

For the past two years, Oliver and other researchers have been working with physical education teachers in public schools in Glasgow, Scotland, to learn more about how implementing an “activist” approach to physical activity affects girls’ participation. The curriculum involves removing the competitive aspect of physical education and instead teaching girls the benefits.

“What we’re finding is that the girls who don’t engage (in physical education) are now engaging,” Oliver said. “They’re participating, they’re enjoying physical education, developing better relationships with their teachers, and the teachers are starting to see that if we move from this status quo of physical education about sport, to physical education about health-related themes and influence in all sorts of girls’ lives, the girls react better.”

This month, Oliver will travel to Norway to conduct similar research.

In a separate project, kinesiology associate professor Phillip Post and College of Health and Social Services associate professor Rebecca Palacios are studying elementary school-age girls and their physical activity through the Aggie Play program.

Post and Palacios received funding last year from the Paso del Norte Healthy Eating and Active Living initiative and the Mountain West Consortium Clinical and Translation Research initiative to support Aggie Play, which is modeled after the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative, a nonprofit program in northern California that uses female college student athletes from local universities to engage elementary school girls in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for an hour once a week after school.

Last year, Aggie Play was successfully implemented at Hillrise Elementary School. Using active women role models from NMSU athletics and the kinesiology department, girls in third through fifth grade participated in physical activity games twice a week throughout the school year.

“The results of the final assessment showed that girls participating in Aggie Play demonstrated improved fitness and self-efficacy to engage in physical activity compared to girls at a control site, Alameda Elementary School,” Post said.

Because of the program’s success, the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation has awarded Aggie Play with $212,000 to continue the program over the next two years. This year, Aggie Play will be implemented through Families Youth Inc. at University Hills and Loma Heights elementary schools.

“Over the next two years we will examine how the after school program influences rates of physical activity, fitness, body composition and perceptions of physical activity,” Post said.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, professors like Wood and Sang Rok Lee are looking at adults and healthy aging. Lee is working on studies exploring how exercise can help delay muscle wasting and anti-inflammatory supplements that can improve overall health. Wood, a gerontologist, is focusing on predicting the risks of falls among senior citizens and the benefits of tai chi among the elderly.

“It will be within the next 15 years or so that all baby boomers will be 65 years of age and older, and even more pronounced are the number of people who will be 85 years of age and older,” Wood said. “This is one of the areas where we have a really keen interest, because the healthcare needs of these individuals and their need for assistance in order to live independently or in assisted care or a nursing care environment are increasing substantially every day.”

Wood said that with the research he and other department faculty are working on, they can find ways to help relieve the societal burden of and improve the quality of life for seniors needing assistance.

“All of us who are paying taxes and paying into a healthcare system have a vested interest in keeping people as functional for as much of their lives as possible,” Wood said.