COLUMBIA, Mo. – Frank Booth wants people to live to be 100. And then be told they have 48 hours to live. Only at the very end of life should people succumb to conditions such as cancer or heart disease, he says. Then, a serious illness wouldn’t be a tragedy; it’d be cause for throwing one last giant party.
Booth, an exercise physiology professor at the University of Missouri, figures that we should thrive until the end of our lives instead of gradually declining into sickness. Our lifespan should not outlast our healthspan. Otherwise, he wonders, what’s the point of sticking around for so long?
Unfortunately, a large proportion of the U.S. population is chronically sick and dying too soon from a cause that’s 100 percent preventable: not enough exercise. Though other controllable factors like poor diet and smoking can also lead to chronic disease, exercise is vital to maintaining lifelong health.
Humans didn’t evolve to sit on couches or at computer desks. Our genes are meant for an active lifestyle, Booth said. Yet less than half of U.S. adults meet national guidelines for physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Booth estimates that this sitting epidemic is responsible for $223 to $381 billion in annual medical costs in the U.S. as of 2009. And the problem has reached children, among whom obesity rates have doubled over the past three decades and type 2 diabetes diagnoses are increasing.
Booth aims to personally solve this problem. With profound dedication, he has committed his life and his own money to studying what makes some people naturally prone to exercise while others tend to lounge around. Booth’s influential career spans half a century, and his passion for research parallels a determination to warn the public of the risks of physical inactivity. But Booth doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk – literally. Though he’s 71 years old, running is his pastime.
In lab, Booth studies the running habits of rats, searching for genetic factors that drive us to exercise – or not. Since early 2009, he has selectively bred rats based on their natural tendencies to run on exercise wheels in their cages. He chooses rats that run the most in a six-day period and mates them with other high-runners, doing the same for the rats that run the shortest distance. Gradually, he has developed a population of rats that are super-runners – racking up over three miles each night – and others that barely move around at all.
Now, the 15th generation of these rats occupies a basement room in Booth’s lab. Rows of clear plastic cages line the walls, each one containing a metal running wheel hooked up to a standard pedometer. During the day, these nocturnal creatures are sleeping. But when the lights click off automatically at 7:01 p.m., the rat room comes alive. Rainforest-like sounds of squeaking, digging and scurrying emerge, and then comes the creaking of wheels being set into motion.
In a 2014 study, Booth observed that high-running rats show increased expression of genes for growing and supporting neurons in the reward and pleasure center of the brain, called the nucleus accumbens. This suggests that running may be more rewarding for these rats versus their lazy counterparts.
“We’ve been able to prove that there are genes that cause you to want to be a couch potato,” Booth said. Since voluntary running is a complex behavior, the differences between the high and low running rats are likely driven by hundreds of genes, he said.
From beginning to end
Booth’s work centers on the idea of starting at the beginning to understand what causes the end. Cancer and obesity are the end result of a lifetime spent sedentary. In the same way, his career trajectory is shaped by where he started.
Growing up in Ohio, Booth learned the virtues of hard work and following through on commitments by the example of his parents. His dad worked his way up from delivering 7 Up to grocery stores to being a marketing executive at PepsiCo, and his mom stayed home to raise Booth and his four younger siblings.
In college at Denison University, Booth majored in biology and found an interest in exercise physiology during conversations with his biology advisor, who was also his assistant swim coach. Riding to meets on the school’s Big Red Bus, the two would sit together and discuss what exercise does to the body.
Booth dove deeper into this idea, studying the effects of exercise on ligament strength in graduate school at the University of Iowa. During subsequent postdoctoral training and later in his first faculty position at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, Booth explored the causes of muscle atrophy in astronauts. But after 20 years of this work, he realized he could help more people by studying physical inactivity in the general population. Booth shifted gears, and in 1999, MU recruited him as a senior professor in exercise physiology.
It’s more than curiosity that compels Booth to do this work. He adamantly wants people to know the danger of not getting enough exercise. Physical inactivity accompanies diet and tobacco use as a leading risk factor for premature death and poor health. In total, 35 conditions, including diabetes and respiratory problems, are caused or amplified by inactivity, Booth said. And in the early 2000s he coined a term for this set of risks: “sedentary death syndrome.”
Booth also formed Researchers Against Inactivity-Related Disorders, a coalition that started with 50 scientists who seek to convince legislators of the link between chronic disease and insufficient exercise. Their website features a counter for unnecessary deaths caused by a sedentary lifestyle. Every ten minutes – about the time it takes to read this story – the number ticks up by 13.
Over the span of his 50-year career, Booth has received an estimated $5 million in federal grants. But in the past decade, he has struggled to secure reliable funding from the National Institutes of Health, the major source of federal health research dollars.
According to Booth, this stems from a fundamental misconception about health and disease. Many of the conditions, such as cancer and heart disease, the NIH targets could be prevented or controlled by exercise.
“We’re spending too much money on curing and not enough on preventing to have to cure,” he said. Though the NIH has made recent changes to include more exercise physiologists on its review committees, neither “exercise” nor “physical inactivity” is listed among the agency’s 244 funded research areas.
With a stubborn faith in his ideas, Booth took matters into his own hands. In November, he committed to giving $1 million of his own money to the university to support his research. He has been donating the money, which he saved diligently starting in graduate school, since he joined the MU faculty.
“If you’re not going to help me, I’ll figure out a way to do it on my own,” Booth said. He believes he sees things in ways that others don’t, and he’s willing to invest in his own ideas. His financial gift also created an endowment to support future graduate students in exercise physiology.
This endowment is only part of Booth’s legacy. He has trained almost 50 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows throughout his career, and he keeps in contact with many of them. He is also quick to extend mentorship to junior faculty members, according to John Thyfault, an associate professor in nutrition and exercise physiology at MU who collaborates with Booth.
“If Frank is on your side, he will go to the ends of the earth to help you,” he said.
Running the run
Booth does far more than just study exercise. Driven by his data, he typically runs the 1.3-mile route from his home to work. And twice a day he does high-intensity interval training – working up to eight miles an hour – on a treadmill crammed into his office.
For Booth, exercise is an escape from an otherwise work-driven life. On a regular day he’s in the office by 4 a.m., accompanied by his dog, a lab-boxer mix named Run. She’s fifth in the line of Booth’s dogs with exercise namesakes – including Jog, Sprint, Dash and Swim. After working for a few hours, he heads home for breakfast, but he’s back at his desk by 7 a.m., where he usually stays for another 12 hours, even on weekends.
This lifestyle would be hard to keep up with. As it is, Booth isn’t married and doesn’t have any kids. But he still manages to make time for family, said Debbi McKnight, his younger sister. When he travels for conferences, he’ll make side trips to visit relatives in nearby cities. Only occasionally does McKnight worry about him working too much.
“He truly believes in what he is doing,” she said. “It’s not a job to him.”
This tenacious commitment makes Booth one of the most preeminent exercise physiologists, said Tim Lightfoot, a kinesiology professor at Texas A&M University.
“He is completely focused on his science and moving knowledge forward,” Lightfoot said. Booth’s approach asks people to think about established ideas in new and innovative ways, he said. Early in his career, Booth pioneered the idea of using molecular biology techniques to study exercise.
Every major award in the field of exercise physiology hangs on the wall in Booth’s office. In 2005, the American College of Sports Medicine invited Booth to give the Joseph B. Wolfe Memorial Lecture, reserved for only the top scientists in the field. But he’s extremely modest, according to his sister. When he does share about his accolades, it’s to his 93-year-old mother from Atlanta, whom he humbly credits with all his success, McKnight said.
Pushing back the apex
As an Eagle Scout, Booth was taught to leave the campsite cleaner than he found it. Now he hopes to leave the planet with people living healthier than when he came.
Booth’s current research focuses on what he calls “the apex.” In our 20s or 30s, we reach a peak in our ability to use oxygen when exercising. Like a car with lots of mileage, our capacity for burning fuel wears out, and we gradually become less physically active with age.
“You hit the top of the mountain, and then you start sliding down,” Booth said.
Even Booth’s high-running rats show this apex in activity, and he is trying figure out what factors contribute to this pattern. He thinks certain genes may turn on or off in a pre-programmed manner at the peak.
Booth also wants to see if he can push the apex back to an older age. In a recent experiment, he showed that exercise alone doesn’t do the trick. He gave some rats access to running wheels and compared them with others that didn’t have wheels. Both groups showed a peak in aerobic capacity at the same age.
The next step is to try giving the rats a drug that ramps up the body’s ability to generate energy to see if that shifts the apex.
For now, the best thing people can do is keep exercising for as long as they can, Booth said.
“It’s a strategy of life,” he said, as his fine gray hair lifted in the breeze during a recent run across campus. He set a slow pace, but his posture was strong, steadied by muscular calves not typical of a man in his 70s. Over a mile and a half, Booth emphasized – without losing his breath – that exercise is crucial to stave of the chronic diseases that crop up with sedentary living.
It’s all about staying healthy long enough to see your grandchildren and maybe even great-grandchildren, he said. Booth doesn’t have any grandchildren of his own, but he has no regrets. Instead, his pride and joy is the work he does to preserve the future health of others.
“If you can keep people vigorous longer, they’ll enjoy life more,“ he said. “You’re only here once, so enjoy it.”
RELATED: Under The Microscope: Frank Booth and the ‘Exercise Apex’ at KBIA