The CSU, Chico Department of Kinesiology is attracting attention for its pioneering research, academic focus, and community outreach
By Gordon Gregory
Is static stretching before a workout a waste of time? Are some longtime PE practices like assigning laps as punishment harmful? Can physical education be tailored to the needs of overweight children and adolescents? Faculty and students in CSU, Chico’s Department of Kinesiology have been working on answers to these and other questions with real-world research and local and national outreach.
Today, physical education touches disciplines as diverse as psychology and medicine, community health and wilderness studies. Even the term “physical education” conveys a concept far too limited to encompass the breadth and depth of the field. Four years ago, CSU, Chico embraced the changing attitudes when it transformed the Department of Physical Education and Exercise Science into the Department of Kinesiology.
Dean of Communication and Education Phyllis Fernlund says the transformation represents a gradual shift in focus from sports and games to academics. Kinesiology is the scientific study of body movement. Undergirding the entire Kinesiology program is the concept that the study of exercise is relevant to almost any human endeavor, a theme that is helping the department gain widespread recognition.
One of seven departments within the College of Communication and Education, Kinesiology has broadened its academic scope while linking up with a variety of community organizations serving diverse populations. Its faculty are involved in an array of applied research activities that include sports medicine, outdoor education, and cancer treatment.
The department also sponsors a number of clinics and programs in which students and faculty provide direct services to children and adults in the community. Most of the programs involve exercise and activity geared to particular populations, including senior citizens, people with disabilities, and autistic children.
“The community service piece—the clinics and programs for kids and adults—allows our graduate students and faculty to work together to apply the knowledge they have and to see some of the research being applied in actual practice,” says Fernlund.
While this article highlights the work of three kinesiology professors, many others have achieved significant professional recognition. In the late 1990s, Professor Cathrine Himberg talked with people, from the elderly to the very young, about their physical education experiences. She heard repeated tales of the humiliation of PE, whether it was being picked last for a team or failing fitness tests while everyone watched.
So Himberg and her 9-year-old son, Joakim Roussell, created CASPER (Concerned Adults and Students for Physical Education Reform), a now nationally recognized nonprofit organization housed at CSU, Chico. The 11-year-old grassroots organization of teachers, parents, school administrators, and students works to eliminate the use of inappropriate practices in physical education that humiliate and alienate children and adolescents.
Thomas Fahey, named CSU, Chico Outstanding Professor for 2005–2006, is known internationally for his work in exercise physiology and has published extensively, including a textbook he co-authored that is used in exercise physiology graduate education throughout the United States and the world.
For 2006–2007, Craig Buschner served as president of the National Association for Sport & Physical Education (NASPE). Jackie Hudson, well known in the field for her research on basketball, jumping, and coordination, received the Ruth B. Glassow award for outstanding scholarship and service to the Biomechanics Academy of NASPE in 2007.
The department, a founding member of the American Kinesiology Association, has a strong mix of veteran professors and new arrivals. The three professors profiled in these pages represent a cross-section of the faculty, personifying the department’s emphasis on education, research, and community service.
Stretching: the limits
Duane Knudson uses a Biodex isokinetic dynamometer to teach biomechanics students how to measure torque at the major joints of the body. Photo by Beiron Andersson.
Kinesiology may be the study of human movement, but for Professor Duane Knudson, it is also a lesson in patience. More than a decade ago, he was the first to write that the kind of pre-workout static stretching that has long been a part of an athlete’s exercise regimen is a waste of time because it does not improve performance. Indeed, the competitor may be worse off for it in the short term.
“When we stretch, we get [temporarily] weaker,” he says, referring to results of studies he began in the late 1990s.
In addition, Knudson says repeated studies show that, counter to what coaches at all levels have been teaching for decades, static stretching does not reduce the risk of injury. Yet today, in gyms and on fields across the country, coaches and PE teachers are putting students and athletes through sometimes wrenching stretching routines in preparation for the coming workout.
The commonly held belief is that stretching the muscles, tendons, and ligaments helps loosen a body up, preparing it for the coming stress of strenuous activity. What actually happens, according to Knudson’s research, is that static stretching puts muscle tissue under strain and like other training creates short-term weakness. Research shows that sprinters who don’t stretch immediately before a race tend to be faster than those who do, and that strength is diminished following static stretching.
Still, many trainers continue to push for static stretching before workouts or competitions because, well, that’s what they were taught. Knudson can only shake his head when he sees professional and amateur football players and other athletes undergo ritual stretching routines in advance of a game, knowing they’d be better off doing nothing.
“Things are really slow to change,” says Knudson, in the kind of accepting understatement you expect in an academician focused on the tradition-bound field of sports.
In the years since he released his groundbreaking findings, Knudson, a fellow of three scholarly societies and a CSU, Chico kinesiology professor since 1997, has seen growing acceptance of his research. Within the field, he says, it is now largely acknowledged that athletes will experience anywhere between a 7 percent and a 30 percent loss of strength for up to one hour following static stretching.
“That’s not a big loss for Joe Shmoe, but for top athletes, it’s very important,” says Knudson, who is interim chair in the Department of Kinesiology and associate dean of the College of Communication and Education.
He is quick to stress the importance of warming up before exercise to help reduce the risk of injury, and of post-workout stretching. Remaining flexible, he says, is a critical fitness goal.
Mental flexibility is also critical in research, particularly in his area of expertise, biomechanics, which studies how living things move. Biomechanics is relevant to biologists, engineers, ergonomic specialists, exercise and sports scientists, and health professionals. The diversity of the field is reflected in Knudson’s three main interests: the biomechanics of tennis (he’s played since he was 10), stretching, and using biomechanics to help athletes assess and improve their performance.
Knudson has written extensively on the science of tennis, publishing papers on topics including the influence of racket design and ball size on the game and how a player’s stance affects performance and potential injury. He has also co-authored Qualitative Analysis of Human Movement, a guide for coaches, trainers, physical therapists, PE teachers, and others about how to analyze human movement to help individuals improve their performance.
The book takes an interdisciplinary approach to a field that often boxes biomechanics scholars into one of a handful of subdisciplines of kinesiology, specialized fields such as motor development or pedagogy. But because of its broad approach, the book has been overlooked by many of those specialists, who tend to focus exclusively on their narrow fields of research, says Knudson.
“I know it was sort of flowing against the creek, but I thought it was important,” says Knudson.
Gradually, the book’s broader, more generalized approach is finding an audience. Now in its second printing and translated into five languages, the book’s steady, if slow, success has been gratifying to Knudson.
He is, after all, a patient man.
Broadening horizons for the disabled
Rebecca Lytle works with a child in the Sensory and Motor Autism Clinic. Photo by Jeff Teeter.
For a year, Nicole Earl tried to teach her son, Carson, how to ride a tricycle, a skill most children master with little difficulty. But Carson was diagnosed with autism before he was 3, and what is simple for others can be monumentally difficult for him. Then Carson’s mother began taking him to CSU, Chico’s Sensory and Motor Autism Clinic, and when kinesiology students at the clinic offered to help Carson learn to ride, things changed quickly.
“It took a day, and he got up on a tricycle and rode across the floor,” recalls Earl, still amazed at the feat. “It sounds so little, but every little gift you get is a gem. It was just miraculous for me.”
Founded by kinesiology professor Rebecca Lytle in 2003, the clinic is one of the few programs in the region created specifically for children with autism. Lytle (BA, Physical Education, ’86; Credentials, ’88; MA, Physical Education, ’92) has seen more than a few breakthroughs at the autism clinic and the other programs she’s involved with as coordinator of the Adapted Physical Activity Program. Helping a child with a disability play catch, engage in team sports, or learn a few basic life skills can be a life-changing accomplishment for the child and the family, she says.
“We see parents who are in tears because it’s the first time their kid’s gotten a trophy for anything,” says Lytle. “It’s such a small thing, but it’s creating success for kids who haven’t had many successes.”
The Adapted Physical Activity Program focuses on people of all ages with disabilities, opening doors for exercise, activities, education, and social development that otherwise might remain shut. Lytle’s work with children with autism is a perfect example.
Some years ago, Lytle, who has taught at CSU, Chico since 1999, noticed increasing numbers of children with autism on campus attending a weekend exercise program for children with disabilities. Autism often makes a child sensitive to sensory stimuli—light, noise, and activity—so traditional exercise programs can be a challenge, and they can become agitated, nervous, even near panic during group activities. It is difficult for children under such stress to focus, learn, or interact with others. This gave Lytle the idea to start the Sensory and Motor Autism Clinic with funding from the College of Communication and help from several of her students.
The clinic allows CSU, Chico students working with children with autism to regulate the environment.
“For kids who are understimulated, we might put them on a therapy ball and bounce them to bring them into a more alert state; for others, swinging may be calming,” says Lytle. “Each child’s program is designed specifically to put him or her in a positive and alert state that is optimal for learning. We can then work with them on new skills, whether they are motor skills, speech and language, or academic.”
The clinic is not the only program Lytle and the Adapted Physical Activity Program sponsors. She is coordinator of the BE:WEL Community Program on campus for community members of all ages with disabilities, and the KIDS:PLAY Community Program, an activity and education program for children and their parents housed at a local commercial gym. She also oversees a program for students to work within the public school system in specialized physical education programs.
Lytle says that each program is designed to serve a local need, adding that by helping the community, CSU, Chico students also learn a great deal about the rewards of service. “We need to stay focused on what we do best, which is training teachers and working with the community,” says Lytle.
These programs also offer a rare beacon of hope to parents such as Nicole Earl, whose gratitude is unabashed.
“Finding the [autism] clinic was just a miracle for me,” says Earl, who has been involved with Lytle and the clinic for almost five years. She says she can’t imagine what she would have done without it.
When Carson was diagnosed as a toddler, Earl was told that massive amounts of early intervention were critical if he were to have a chance of developing any relationships. But she quickly learned that, as she puts it, “there’s just a great, giant hole for services in California north of Sacramento.”
She said she cannot imagine what life would be like for Carson and her family—she is married and has another son—without Lytle and the autism clinic.
“I think Rebecca Lytle deserves the Nobel Prize,” she says.
Exercise: the power of example
Josh Trout gets ready for his daily bike ride home after teaching.
Photo by Beiron Andersson.
Professor Josh Trout is a missionary of sorts, preaching the gospel of lifelong, daily physical activity, something he models to his flocks of students. He believes strongly in both the need to get the heart rate up for at least 30 to 60 minutes a day—that’s every single day—and in the power of teaching by example.
He bikes or walks to his office—doesn’t even have a campus parking pass—regularly lifts weights at the gym, and if a student ever catches him using the elevator to get to his second story office in Yolo Hall, well, trust that they never will.
“Lifelong physical activity is the foundation of everything I do,” he says. “It’s part of the job, even the way I conduct my life.”
Trout, an assistant professor at CSU, Chico since 2003, tells his students that quality physical education is about far more than playing games or burning off excess energy. Being educated about the physical body is the foundation of health and happiness. There are no wonder drugs, therapies, diets, or surgical procedures capable of giving the average human more physical and mental well-being than daily physical activity, he says.
“Physical activity gives you the most bang for your buck,” he says.
That’s why he has spent much of his research time exploring new ways for young people, particularly overweight youth, to become physically active for life.
Trout did his doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois on the physical education experiences of overweight high school students, and he co-authored with San Diego State University professor David Kahan the 2008 book Supersized P.E.: A Comprehensive Guidebook for Teaching Overweight Students. The book is for physical education teachers, parents, and others who are on the front lines of battling an epidemic of overweight children and adolescents.
More than one in five young Americans are overweight today, and their numbers are growing rapidly. These students face serious physical and psychological problems, some of which make exercising difficult or unpleasant. Thus, many fall into a cycle of behavior that can make it doubly hard to lose weight. Poor self image, for example, is common in overweight children and adolescents, and Trout notes it can be particularly acute during PE, where a lack of fitness or motor skills can be a source of embarrassment and ridicule, particularly if the class is improperly managed by the teacher.
In his book, Trout suggests ways to help overweight children and adolescents find enjoyment in physical activity. Many of the strategies center on exploring ways for the student to feel secure and comfortable in a workout.
Helping students find the joy in activity has led Trout to explore the world of “exergaming,” a relatively new phenomenon involving video games that require substantial movement. In particular, Trout has conducted research on and designed curriculum guides for Playstation’s Dance Dance Revolution, which puts participants through what can be strenuous, yet enjoyable, dance routines on a sensory mat.
Results of an eight-week study Trout published in 2008 involving 26 participants were surprising and encouraging. Each participant agreed to play the game three times a week for 20 minutes. After eight weeks, Trout found that all but four lost weight, with improvements ranging from less than one pound to more than eight pounds of weight loss. Reductions in total body fat showed similar improvements. But as important as the measurable physical gains were, Trout was most impressed with the consistently high enjoyment scores over time.
Speaking as a researcher, he says, “exercise adherence is the key.”
If you don’t like to do something, he says, chances are you won’t do it for long. Ever the role model, Trout speaks of his own gig at CSU, Chico in terms of personal satisfaction.
“This is as close as I can get for getting paid to do what I love,” he says. “This is a perfect fit.”
About the author
Gordon Gregory lives with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Georgia, in Paradise. He is a former reporter for newspapers in Montana and Oregon, and is now a freelance writer.