October 2013 Newsletter Article

MSU Scientists Keep President’s Fitness Council In Shape: Q&A With Kinesiology Experts Jim Pivarnik And Karin Pfeiffer

Jim Pivarnik, Michigan State University kinesiology professor and MSU’s Research Integrity Officer, and his department colleague Karin Pfeiffer both serve on the 16-member Science Board of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. A leading expert on exercise during pregnancy, Pivarnik has been part of the science board since 2011. Pfeiffer, an associate professor of kinesiology who studies physical activity in children, joined in 2012.

What is the Science Advisory Board of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition?

Pivarnik: The council itself began with a paper published in 1953 that indicated the physical fitness of America’s youth was significantly lower than that seen in many European countries. As a result, then-President Dwight Eisenhower established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in 1956.

After a number of iterations over the years, the current organization is now known as the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports & Nutrition (PCPFSN), and is broadly related to the physical and nutritional health of all Americans. Many council members are well-known sports figures, such as co-chairs Drew Brees (NFL quarterback) and Dominique Dawes (Olympic gold medal gymnast). Perhaps you have seen one or more council members performing public service announcements about the role of physical activity and good nutrition on health.

The science board, of which Karin and I are members, makes sure public programs and messages delivered by “the face people,” as I call them, are backed by sound science.

What is your role on the board?

Pivarnik: We hold most of our meetings by conference call and make only occasional trips to Washington. But the Science Advisory Board plays a direct role in setting federal policy. For example, I helped write the federal government’s first-ever guidelines for physical activity in 2008, and Karin was part of the team that wrote a five-year update to the guidelines.

Our activities range from developing and updating physical fitness tests, to writing and editing articles published in the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports & Nutrition Research Digest, to writing on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports & Nutrition blog. For instance, I wrote two short pieces on the blog in 2012: One on physical activity during pregnancy and one focusing on resistance training in youth athletes. Other members have done the same.

The Science Advisory Board also is charged with developing focused messages to be delivered by the council, which will eventually put them in layperson’s terms.

What kinds of issues are you looking at now?

Pfeiffer: We are serving the council at a time when getting Americans—especially children—to eat better and exercise more is a national priority. Childhood obesity rates have tripled nationally in the past three decades, with inactivity and poor nutrition the chief culprits. Washington has responded with new initiatives, including first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program and the first-ever White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity.

As Jim mentioned, I helped to augment the physical activity guidelines that the board released this spring: “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report: Strategies to Increase Physical Activity Among Youth.” While many people may be aware of the myriad benefits of youth physical activity, few are familiar with strategies to implement physical activity programming. This report will be useful for anyone interested in helping youth become more physically active, from parents to policymakers.

How do you think the information from the Midcourse Report impacts Michigan children?

Pfeiffer: The findings will help researchers and practitioners in the public health arena determine future courses of action for physical activity programming for youth. Gov. Rick Snyder is interested in childhood obesity, so there is potential to focus policy, funds or programs toward particular settings where we can increase activity. The report findings were evidence-based, meaning that previous research studies showed effectiveness. It helps to know what works, what does not work, and where to focus future efforts.

What have you gotten out of this experience?

Pfeiffer: The satisfaction of serving at the federal level isn’t just about the knowledge that’s contributed – it’s also about the new insights that are brought home. You get a much fuller sense of how the government operates. You can tell your students firsthand about how government reports get written, but when they find out that an MSU faculty member wrote those national exercise guidelines, it makes it more real.

Do you feel as though your work is having an impact?

Pivarnik: It’s great that getting people physically active is considered important in Washington. When my career was getting started, this stuff wasn’t on the radar at all. To get people started on exercise programs until they get hooked and it becomes a lifestyle—that’s our whole purpose. And we do whatever that takes.