Matthew Harber: Exercise Is the Best Medicine

“Exercise is good for you.”

As a piece of advice, there’s nothing very original about it. But beyond this common wisdom is a surprising truth: We still have many unanswered questions about why exercise is so key to living a long, healthy life.

Dr. Matthew Harber is dedicated to better understanding why exercise matters, especially as one ages. He is a professor of clinical exercise physiology in the School of Kinesiology and director of the University’s Clinical Exercise Physiology Laboratory.

Identifying how exercise benefits our health is the first step in developing the best fitness programs for adults, he said.

“Fitness is the strongest determinant of mortality and health outcomes, even relative to the other major risk factors such as blood pressure and high cholesterol,” Harber said.

Understanding how lack of exercise impacts fitness is also vital.

“It’s important because the lack of physical activity is an epidemic in the United States,” Harber said. “If we can get more people to exercise, specifically exercise with the intention of improving fitness, that would go a long way toward improving the health of the nation as a whole.”

There is no better place to research and learn about fitness and exercise than Ball State, said Harber, who himself received his PhD in human bioenergetics from the University.

“The techniques, the equipment, the people, and the support from the University — it’s unmatched anywhere in the country. So that allows us to do unique things that can’t be done anywhere else.”

Harber’s research areas include exercise training, cardiorespiratory fitness, exercise testing, and the connection between lifestyle and health. His work has been funded by prestigious agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association, and published in premier academic journals. And because of its real-world implications, his findings also pop up regularly in print, TV, and Internet outlets worldwide.

In the U.S., the $30 billion health and fitness industry has grown by at least 3-4% annually for the past ten years. Increasingly, incentives such as free health club memberships or studio classes are being offered by employers and insurers, adding to the demand. Yet for all the time, money, and sweat pouring into fitness, there’s confusion about which kinds of exercise work best for achieving health goals.

Answers are being found in longitudinal data gathered by the University’s Clinical Exercise Physiology Laboratory since the mid-1960s. As the nation’s longest-running University-based exercise program, it has followed the same people over decades to understand how fitness, health, and aging relate to each other.

For one recent study, Harber and his team examined fitness levels among several thousand people who visited the University’s exercise research facilities over the last few decades. Their results showed that the goal of exercise shouldn’t be to simply move. Rather, individuals should ramp up the intensity to improve heart and lung fitness in order to live longer.

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