updated 3/7/2005 3:33:04 PM ET 2005-03-07T20:33:04

At 19, Jessica Pollard has learned the hard way how important regular exercise is.

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In her first semester at the University of Missouri-Columbia last year, Pollard gained 15 pounds from all-you-can-eat dorm dining and by not keeping up the exercise she got as a high school athlete growing up on a farm.

The college sophomore also witnessed her grandmother’s struggle with osteoporosis, which might have been avoided with weight-bearing exercise.

“If you plan to lose weight, you have to cut out the bad stuff and incorporate physical activity,” said Pollard, who changed her eating patterns but struggles to squeeze in regular exercise.

A new course to be offered this fall at the university will emphasize the lifelong cost of neglecting that second element.

The course — apparently one of the first in the country — will explore how lack of exercise contributes to obesity and unhealthy aging, marked by heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, muscle wasting, frailty and dementia. The course also will look at the consequences for public policy.

Teaching the fundamentals of health
It is hoped that these future public policy makers will “decide that constructing sidewalks is not just a money issue but a health issue as well,” said Frank Booth, professor of biomedical sciences, who helped create the course.

Marybeth Brown, a physical therapy professor who is teaming with Booth to teach the course, said it’s ludicrous that so little attention is paid to educating students on the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle.

“If we don’t capture their interest now, it’s going to be too late for them,” said Brown, a former physical therapist who directs a fitness-wellness center for people 80 and older. The center, run by the university’s school of health professions, also is a research site for studying the effects of exercise on aging and chronic disease, such as diabetes and arthritis.

Earlier in her career, Brown worked as a physical therapist in nursing homes and said she became convinced the residents could have had better lives.

“It was an upsetting experience for me,” she said. “They were suffering from preventable lifestyle diseases. They had run out of muscle mass and cardiovascular endurance.

“We have enough oomph to get through 85 or 90 years ... but we spend all this time sitting on our rear ends.”

Brown said people can follow the lead of fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who keeps going and going even at age 90, or end up in a nursing home by their early 70s.

Staying fit as you age
Brown, 59, who works out at the gym, hikes on weekends and bicycles in the summer, said she wants to teach students how to stay healthy as they age. “You don’t suddenly wake up at 65 and find you’re old,” she said. “The deficits of aging start in your 30s.”

The course will explore the basic science of a calorie, how to achieve energy balance to maintain weight, the biology of aging, and the link between physical inactivity and chronic disease and its implications for public policy.

“There are students here who are appallingly overweight, and I’m betting they’re not going to be the ones attending the class,” Brown said. “That saddens me because they don’t understand why they’re in the pickle they’re in.”

Booth believes college students as a whole are not as fat as the general population — 65 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, the government says.

But if students follow the national pattern, they will become less active as they get older, he said, adding, “We go from kids loving to play to adults who don’t do anything.”

He offers this sobering statistic: It takes only 10 unburned calories a day to produce a pound of weight in a year. Walking 500 feet burns 10 calories.

Booth said fitness can be achieved by incorporating simple things into daily life: cycling or walking short distances instead of driving, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and walking the dog rather than letting it out the back door.

“I want to drive home the point that physical activity is as important as diet to weight control,” he said. “There’s too much emphasis on overeating and not enough on under-exercising. It’s all part of the caloric equation.”

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