DC Lee’s latest study, CardioRACE, uses a state-of-the-art lab to compare four exercise patterns. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Pinpointing exercise’s positive effects on human health

What started as a $25,000 College of Human Sciences seed grant in 2014 has evolved into a body of research poised to change the nation’s exercise habits. Duck-chul “DC” Lee, an assistant professor in kinesiology, studies physical activity. He aims to improve the effectiveness of exercise for better health and longer lives.

Lee’s latest study — Comparison of the Cardiovascular Benefits of Resistance, Aerobic, and Combined Exercise (or CardioRACE) — uses digital technologies and a state-of-the-art lab. CardioRACE will compare four exercise patterns: sedentary, aerobic, resistance, and a combination. Participants are now being sought for the study.

Wide-reaching implications

“This study could fill an important gap in our knowledge of the benefits of resistance exercise to further prevent cardiovascular diseases, beyond the well-documented benefits of aerobic exercise,” Lee said in his project summary. “This project potentially contributes to developing more effective clinical and public health strategies to prevent cardiovascular diseases and advancing more comprehensive future physical activity guidelines to support the mission of the National Institutes of Health.”

Lee’s research has the potential to improve individuals’ health on a national level.

“The findings from this study will be used in developing national physical activity guidelines,” he said. “The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute also produces physical activity recommendations. Our findings will also be used in their publications.”

Current federal physical activity guidelines primarily focus on aerobic exercise for its health benefits, like preventing cardiovascular disease and stroke, Lee said.

The aerobic activity of running two hours each week is tied to three extra years of life, according to a report released by Lee’s research team in March. Lee, Iowa State postdoctoral research associate Angelique Brellenthin, and colleagues from four other institutions published the findings in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases.

Lee’s report is a follow-up to his team’s 2014 study that showed running 5 to 10 minutes a day reduces the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. The 2014 study included more than 55,000 adults ages 18 to 100, looking at their exercise habits over a span of 15 years.

Tracking exercise’s benefits

With the CardioRACE study, Lee said he hopes to pinpoint the independent health benefits of resistance exercise — and determine the additive benefits of aerobic and resistance exercise when they’re combined. Lee said there is little evidence in the current body of research whether resistance exercise has similar effects.

Lee said that although his research is tied to exercise, it’s really about improving muscle strength — something that can be achieved through everyday physical activity.

“For aerobic exercise, people can run or bike,” he said. “In terms of resistance exercise, they can push a lawnmower or do yard work.”

A $3.4 million National Institutes of Health grant has allowed Lee to expand his pilot study, increasing the number of participants to 400. Over the course of a year, each participant will remain sedentary, do only aerobic or resistance training, or combine aerobic and resistance training.

Lee’s co-investigators include Marian Kohut, a Barbara E. Forker Professor in Kinesiology; Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, an associate professor in food science and human nutrition; and Yehua Li, an associate professor in statistics.

Dedicated space = better results

A study with so many participants would be difficult to track by hand — but the researchers have the advantage of today’s cutting-edge technology in a dedicated lab space.

“Each participant’s individualized exercise plan is loaded onto a wellness key,” Lee said. “After participants finish their exercise programs, they put the key back into a kiosk and data related to their performance and health status is gathered on the computer-controlled exercise monitoring system.”

Digitizing the process saves Lee’s team from having to manually enter participants’ data. Streamlining the process allows Lee and his team to do more data crunching and less data gathering.

“The uniqueness of the system is that we can save time,” Lee said. “We can be more efficient and accurate at the same time in data collection and participant monitoring.”