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Research Park 20th Anniversary: From Sports Science to Pediatric Fitness

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Research Park 20th Anniversary: From Sports Science to Pediatric Fitness

Madison, Wisconsin - When UW Health Research Park opened in 1995, Sports Medicine exercise science manager Randy Clark worked extensively with the University of Wisconsin athletic teams.

Sports was becoming science, and Clark tested the Badger athletes' body composition, strength, power and endurance, with an eye toward creating training regimens that would help them get better on their chosen fields, courts and ice.

As a former high school hockey coach, he was in his personal and professional element, and enjoyed working with the athletes, athletic trainers and many UW coaches.

"In the mid-80's we were on the leading edge of exercise science testing," says Clark, who started with the Sports Medicine department in 1984. "We did some really neat things with athletes, and we showed that you can clearly improve performance. Exercise science helps athletes get better."

UW Health exercise science manager Randy Clark, putting an athlete through an endurance test.That's common knowledge in athletic circles today, but Research Park was was one of the first collegiate performance testing programs in the nation, featuring exercise science testing that was previously performed only on Olympians. It garnered national attention, including a CNN special feature showing laboratory testing and on-ice speed and acceleration testing with the UW Hockey team.

The relationship was a boon to the UW athletic department, and it helped the Sports Medicine program, as well, by simultaneously promoting and demystifying its work. After all, people take notice when 6'8" power forwards and 280-pound defensive tackles enter the building, and they walked right past the Research Park Fitness Center on their way to their testing.

"At the time Research Park was built, it was one of the country's first hospital-based fitness centers that included an exercise science laboratory," Clark says. "The UW athletes would come here for their testing, which was neat because our clients could see the basketball players and hockey players and the women's crew team – all of them. It gave us a link to the athletes."

That link went in both directions. The Sports Medicine department's impact on amateur athletics quickly expanded, and its extensive work in body composition research was integral to the development of minimum weights for wrestlers mandate by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association minimum wrestling weight program – the first in the nation. Now all 50 states are required to have a similar minimum weight program to protect the health of high school wrestlers, and the NCAA soon followed suite.

"It all started in our exercise science laboratory," Clark says.

It also led to a completely new area of research and treatment a few years later. Pediatric overweight and obesity was becoming a formidable public health problem, and Clark collaborated with UW Health pediatric endocrinologist Aaron Carrel to explore whether the methods he used with the Badgers would translate to kids.

"Our Pediatric Fitness Clinic started as a research study," Clark says. "Aaron approached me and said, ‘I'm working with kids and I need to track their fitness and body composition.' I said, ‘Sure I can help you. We do that all the time with the UW athletes.'"

The Pediatric Fitness Clinic introduces kids to activity that is fun and promotes health.That research study blossomed into a unique clinical and research program. The Pediatric Fitness Clinic is now a Research Park staple, working with patients between 5 and 18 years old to address medical problems stemming from inactivity, improve food and nutrition habits, and make exercise a consistent part of their lives. People exercising on the Fitness Center floor are every bit as likely to see a group of middle-school kids marching to Clark's exercise science laboratory as they are the men's ice hockey team.

"That's why it worked," Clark says. "The kids felt special. They got to go to the same lab the Badgers went to. It didn't feel like they were going to the doctor."

In the past decade, Clark, Carrel and the Pediatric Fitness Clinic staff have helped improve the health of untold numbers of children and made groundbreaking discoveries about the activity habits of youngsters. In introducing an "alternative" gym class to students at River Bluff Middle School in Stoughton, Wisconsin, they found kids with previously sedentary lifestyles will embrace physical activity when they are offered exercise options catered to their tastes and preferences.

And a joint venture with the Dane County YMCA revealed that participation in an after-school fitness program can make a major difference in a child's level of cardiovascular fitness, including reducing body fat and increasing oxygen consumption.

"The number one health problem facing Wisconsin children is poor physical fitness and obesity," says Dr. Carrel.

That problem is now being confronted, and the work being done at the Pediatric Fitness Clinic has received national attention. Most exciting for Clark was 2012's "Weight of the Nation." A portion of the four-part HBO documentary followed 11-year-old Kaelen Guetschow as he worked with Pediatric Fitness Clinic staff to get healthier. The HBO cameras were running when Clark showed Kaelen a computer printout of the improvements he'd made in body fat percentage and muscle mass during his time at the Pediatric Fitness Clinic. The young man smiled and clapped as Randy told him, "Your relationship between muscle and fat is getting better and better. I mean, this is really good news."

In the documentary, Kaelen's father said, "When Kaelen saw all of the improvements in the different measures, seeing the look on his face…that was great. It's something we can point to and say, ‘The things that you are doing are having a direct effect on your health.'"

The idea is simple but its impact immense – instilling good habits now can lead to a lifetime of better health. And Clark derives great satisfaction from his work with Kaelen and the many kids he's helped.

"I am very fortunate to have worked with so many great athletes, coaches, kids and families over my 30 years with UW Health Sports Medicine the program. Frankly, I have the best exercise physiology job you can have," he says. "With UW athletics, it's been fun to help teams and athletes improve performance. With the kids in the Pediatric Fitness Clinic, you can change lives."

Date Published: 10/07/2015