Dr. Todd Duhamel:
Keep Moving, Keep Healthy

Understanding the link between exercise and health

Are you sitting down?

You may be surprised to learn what a St. Boniface Hospital researcher has to say about cardiac patients and exercise.

“Over 100 years ago we stopped chasing our food, picking our food, and farming our food and we started sitting at our desks,” says Dr. Todd Duhamel, Principal Investigator, Physical Activity and Chronic Disease Prevention at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre, “The human body was meant to move. We’ve engineered our environments to stop us from moving and that’s what needs to change.”

Duhamel notes that years ago heart attack patients were told to rest for two months before resuming physical activity, and patients needing heart surgery were told not to be active in the period leading up to the operation. That’s the wrong approach, says Duhamel, who has a University of Waterloo PhD in kinesiology (the study of human movement): “We tell our cardiac patients to stop sitting so much and we tell them it’s safe to move more.”

Studying exercise at a cellular level

Duhamel, who has been at St-Boniface since 2009, focuses his research around two broad themes: basic exercise physiology and clinical exercise physiology. With his research in basic physiology, Duhamel is trying to understand how exactly exercise promotes health at a cellular level. Through extensive testing, Duhamel and his team are learning that some of the positive benefits of exercise are actually mimicked by some pharmaceuticals, like ACE inhibitors.

The hope is that by gaining an even richer understanding of what exercise does for our bodies, medical professionals can give better advice, and design more sophisticated rehabilitation programs that improve health outcomes.

Duhamel and his team are also interested in learning about what type of exercise is most beneficial, and they have become increasingly convinced about the value of interval training. Instead of just telling a cardiac patient to walk, “we have them go hard for a minute and then back off for a minute,” he explains. “We’re seeing that you can gain more benefit with less exercise if you exercise properly.”

“We tell our cardiac patients to stop sitting so much and we tell them it’s safe to move more.”

“Pre-hab”

From a clinical perspective, Duhamel and company are looking at exercise programs even before patients get into surgery – an approach he calls “pre-hab.” Funding has been secured for a multi-site study to be led by St. Boniface. So far, two maritime hospitals are involved. Such multi-site studies are considered to be the “gold standard,” says Duhamel. The study will further St-Boniface’s understanding of the link between pre-surgery exercise, length of hospital stay, depression, and total health outcomes. “The sooner you start exercising after a heart attack, the better your health outcomes,” says Duhamel. “Sometimes you have to be on an elective surgery wait list for a while. But we don’t have anything in place to tell you how to exercise while you wait. An effective ‘pre-hab’ program is like filling up your gas tank before surgery. You can thrive and live a better life after surgery.”

Lessons in hard work

Duhamel learned what it takes to thrive from his dynamic family. Raised in Atikokan, Ontario, Duhamel was raised by an active mom who worked as a special education teacher, and his hard-working dad who was a millwright. His slightly younger brother Perry was a colourful playmate growing up, and big-brother Anthony showed (and still shows) remarkable perseverance by graduating from high school despite physical setbacks that included 21 surgeries before he was 16.

“I learn from Anthony that you just have to work your butt off,” says Duhamel.

Lesson learned.

Duhamel is a respected leader in his lab and pays close attention to how he manages and motivates his people. He also feels very strongly that it is his job to keep the lab running by developing meaningful, comprehensive proposals that attract funding. He works hard, and is often out and about meeting with stakeholders; he sees research as a small business sometimes in that you have to develop the idea, pitch it, deliver what you promise, and then do it all over again. In his first five years in Winnipeg, he raised about $2 million for his research.

Just don’t sit still

He also learned a life-long lesson from his grandmother who was an avid gardener. When she was in the garden – with her children and grandchildren by her side – she was happy and healthy. After a fall, she wasn’t able to work the way she liked and the future researcher could see that she grew depressed and that her total well-being was diminished.

“She didn’t even know that gardening was exercise,” says Duhamel. “And when my son helps me today in our garden, he doesn’t know it either.”

That’s the key, says Duhamel. Physical activity need to easily make its way into our daily lives so we do it more often – from walking to gardening to joining your kids in the pool when they have swimming lessons to even standing at a party instead of sitting down. Another key is equipping doctors and other health professionals with information and resources to share with the patient so that the conversation can go from “you need to lose some weight” to “here’s how you can be more active and do it.”

Through further basic scientific and clinical research, Duhamel and his team will seek partners and funding to understand the science of exercise and advance the practice of it as we try to build a less sedentary, healthier society. You know that Todd Duhamel won’t be sitting still.

To learn more about Dr. Duhamel’s research visit www.sbrc.ca/duhamel

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