UC Berkeley press release


UC Berkeley epidemiologist wins Olympic medal for studies showing exercise protects against heart disease

by Robert Sanders

Berkeley -- The first two Olympic medals of the 1996 Summer Games go not to competitors in one of the 271 scheduled athletic events, but to an amateur runner and an avid swimmer who devoted their careers to showing the lifetime health benefits of vigorous exercise.

Ralph S. Paffenbarger Jr., a research epidemiologist and physician at the University of California at Berkeley and an affiliate of both Stanford University and the Harvard School of Public Health, will be awarded an Olympic medal Sunday (7/14) along with British scientist/physician Jeremy N. Morris for independent research showing the link between physical activity and lowered risk of coronary heart disease.

The medals accompany the first $250,000 Olympic Prize in sport science, inaugurated this year by the International Olympic Committee and endowed by the Parke-Davis division of Warner-Lambert Co., which develops pharmaceuticals. The prize will be awarded July 14 at the opening ceremony of the 105th session of the International Olympic Committee in Atlanta, prior to the beginning of the XXVI Olympiad July 19.

Paffenbarger, a fit 74, is known for his pioneering studies of Harvard graduates and San Francisco longshoremen. These studies showed that exercise lowers the risk of heart disease and reduces risk of many other diseases. He showed that the more you exercise, the less chance you have of dying of a heart attack, and that men who exercised vigorously and burned at least 2,000 calories a week -- roughly the equivalent of running 20 miles a week -- had the lowest risk of all.

These findings became the foundation for the American College of Sports Medicine's fitness recommendations, and are the subject of a book by Paffenbarger and Eric Olsen called LifeFit: An Effective Exercise Program for Optimal Health and a Longer Life , published last month by Human Kinetics press of Champaign, Illinois.

"We know that being physically active and physically fit is a way of protecting yourself against coronary heart disease, hypertension and stroke, plus adult-onset diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, probably colon cancer and maybe other cancers, and probably clinical depression," Paffenbarger says. "Exercise has an enormous impact on the quality of life."

Paffenbarger began his studies in the 1960s when he discovered an unparalleled resource: comprehensive physical exam data on 36,000 students who entered Harvard College between 1916 and 1950. The subjects, mostly men, today range in age from 62 to 100, and many still participate in the study.

Through periodic questionnaires, Paffenbarger and his colleagues in the Harvard School of Public Health and later UC Berkeley's School of Public Health followed the life course of these subjects. They charted physical activity, alcohol and tobacco use, numerous other aspects of their lifestyle and how they changed over the years, and of course illnesses and cause of death.

This and a companion study of University of Pennsylvania graduates, both ongoing, have provided a wealth of data proving the salutary effect of vigorous exercise. He published 62 papers on the Harvard College Alumni Study alone, and expects to receive a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for more follow-up.

"The Olympic committee money will let me take these studies off the shelf and start over again," he said.

Upon Paffenbarger's arrival at UC Berkeley in 1968 he initiated a new study of longshoremen on the San Francisco docks, comparing hard-working cargo handlers with less active walking bosses and warehousemen. He and his colleagues, in particular Richard J. Brand, professor of biostatistics in UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, published a total of nine major papers on the study, most recently in 1975 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

These studies, together with earlier studies by Morris of London transport workers and British civil servants, demonstrated beyond a doubt the protective effect of vigorous exercise, even when taken up later in life.

"We've shown without question that people of all ages, when they take up a more active lifestyle involving moderately vigorous exercise, will reduce their risk of heart disease and many other diseases," Paffenbarger says. "There is no question, being physically active protects against these diseases,"

While younger people have gotten the message, he notes, many middle aged and elderly have not.

"How successful have we been in getting the message out?" he asks. "I'm not satisfied."

Paffenbarger himself was an avid runner and marathoner until a few years ago, when he was forced to quit because of knee problems. From 1967, when he first took up running at the age of 45, until 1993, he ran in 151 marathons and long distance races. He continues his exercise regimen today with daily 3 to 4 mile walks. His running and professional exploits are detailed in a glowing tribute on the World Wide Web, at the URL http://www2.pitt.edu/~pahnet/paff/paff.html.

In 1977 Paffenbarger joined the epidemiology department at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he remained as a professor until his retirement in 1993. He subsequently returned to UC Berkeley to join the Department of Human Biodynamics, where he collaborates with Professor George A. Brooks.

He still maintains connections with both Stanford and Harvard, where he holds the position of Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology in the Harvard University School of Public Health. From 1968 to 1977 he also served as a medical officer with the California State Department of Public Health in Berkeley.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Paffenbarger obtained his A.B. from Ohio State University in 1944. After service in World War II he moved to Northwestern University, from which he received his MD in 1947. He subsequently obtained his masters (1952) and doctorate (1954) in public health from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health.

His early career was spent in polio research as an officer in the United States Public Health Service. Later, when polio was no longer a public health problem, he began his landmark study of the relations between physical activity, chronic disease, and longevity.

Paffenbarger is an honorary fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, and former president of the American Epidemiological Society. Over a span of 20 years, 1972-92, he served as associate editor, editor and special editor of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

He lives with his wife, also an avid marathoner, in Berkeley.

This server has been established by the University of California at Berkeley Public Information Office. Copyright for all items on this server held by The Regents of the University of California. Thanks for your interest in UC Berkeley.
More Press Releases | More Campus News and Events | UC Berkeley Home Page

Send comments to: comments@pa.urel.berkeley.edu