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EXERCISE IS MEDICINE: (From left) Ryan Spiardi, a Slippery Rock University exercise science major from Indiana, Pa., helps local resident Phil Lenko with a physical activity session. Jeff Lynn, SRU associate professor of exercise and rehabilitative sciences, supervises.

Let's get physical: exercise science powers national health movement

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University's department of exercise and rehabilitative sciences is powering up its version of a health initiative called "exercise is medicine." The initiative will address what professors call the epidemic of physical inactivity and will include curriculum enhancements, networking with physicians and new opportunities for SRU students to help peers and community residents improve fitness.

"What we are doing - in long-term, deliberate fashion - is trying to change the culture of the University community to embrace physical activity for its benefits," said Carena Winters, SRU assistant professor of exercise and rehabilitative sciences. "Getting those that aren't active to be more active is the goal, because we know a lot of people are aware of health risk factors such as smoking, hypertension and coronary artery disease, but what people don't realize is physical inactivity is in itself an independent risk factor."

Exercise is medicine argues that physical activity is integral in the prevention and treatment of diseases and should be regularly assessed by primary care providers, like screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rate. SRU's initiative will encourage physicians and other health-care providers to evaluate a patient's level of activity at office visits and prescribe exercise when devising treatment plans. SRU students will be available as exercise counselors, said Jeff Lynn, associate professor of exercise and rehabilitative sciences.

"People don't realize how bad it is if they don't perform physical activity," Lynn said. "We want to help people understand that physical activity isn't necessarily jogging and lifting weights. It's getting out and playing and moving more. It's something other than being still - that's where it starts."

The Exercise is Medicine Committee will formally launch the initiative in April but is doing a soft launch this semester to raise awareness, Lynn said. Physical education majors recently played tag in the Quad to show that light activity can be fun, and HOPE Peer Educators spoke about it during orientation.

Long-term, the goal is to help the greater health community, including the American Medical Association, realize that exercise is medicine, Lynn said. Greater awareness is the first step to improving the public's overall health and reducing health-care costs, he said.

"People don't think of exercise as being essential just for health," Lynn said. "A lot of people come from a different paradigm where they think it's all about looks, or fat or weight loss. We want people to realize that being inactive carries the same risk as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day."

The initiative also aims to produce an expectation among patients that health care providers should prescribe exercise as part of wellness care.

"When you go to the doctor, you expect the physician to take your heart rate. This initiative aims to create a paradigm where the physician sees exercise as a medical need," said Joy Urda, instructor of exercise and rehabilitative sciences. "You expect your physician to prescribe something that will help your cholesterol. You expect your doctor to make you well, and exercise is medicine can help."

SRU can bridge the gap between physicians and patients by providing students to devise activity programs for those who are unsure about a fitness strategy, she said.

"We are leading this initiative by producing graduates and students that patients will be able to refer to for specific activity information," Urda said.