Dr. Robert Boushel on exercise as medicine

Dr. Robert Boushel, professor and director of the School of Kinesiology, has always had a passion for physical activity. When we sit down to talk about his work, he says his passion started early. “My academic training is in cardiovascular physiology, but my real passion started much earlier,” he says. “As a kid, I was always moving. I loved to run and play. In high school and university I played sports and later got really into endurance sports like road races from 5k to marathons, and triathlons. But I wanted to know the science of what made up performance.”

Robert’s research focus

Nowadays, Robert’s research focuses on how we respond physiologically to exercise and training. Everyone knows that exercise is good for health, but Robert has developed some novel methods to quantify just how good it is. “I study the oxygen cascade, starting with measuring the function of the heart, how much oxygen the blood is carrying, how much is delivered to different regions of the body, and how oxygen is consumed by muscles.” He also focuses on how blood vessels dilate and constrict when a person is exercising, how that changes during training; and how oxygen diffuses into muscles and to mitochondria – organelles that are found in large numbers throughout our body which consume oxygen to produce our body’s energy. “So looking at the heart, the circulatory system, the working muscles, and then studying the mitochondria in the muscles where all the oxygen is consumed, that’s the complete cascade and that’s really my area of research and how the whole system is altered with exercise in healthy people, athletes, or those with diseases like diabetes or lung disease.”

His research impacts

Exercise is not only important for improving your function and performance but it is now a mainstream approach in clinical practice. There is now evidence that Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome can be reversed with exercise. Cancer patients have a much better prognosis if they exercise. In fact, many drugs prescribed to treat disease mimic the chemical and signalling pathways within the body that exercise already works on. “Except exercise doesn’t have the negative side effects and it does many more things in concert with other signals that these drugs don’t do.”

When I ask why exercise isn’t being prescribed to everyone then, he laughs. “That’s why I’m here! I’d love to see many more people and communities exercising and playing more because not only is it fundamental to our health, it’s fun and it creates social vibrancy.”

Since becoming the director of the School, Robert has advocated at the decision-making level to implement systems within the medical community and the community-at-large for exercise as part of daily life. “We now know that a lack of physical activity results in the abnormal expression of many genes.” Robert wants to see change happen to address these chronic lifestyle diseases. “The magic potion for health is clearly exercise. It even keeps your skin young. I don’t know, except for gray hair, what exercise doesn’t do.”

His work as director of the School of Kinesiology

Robert says being the director of the School has been inspirational for him. “I’m excited by the many talents of the engaged and dedicated people here at UBC. It’s been inspiring to see the growth in research capacity and quality in the School. And seeing the enthusiastic new students and those graduating each year – that’s moving.” After spending 13 years abroad conducting research in Scandinavia – the birthplace of exercise physiology – Robert says it’s nice to be home in Canada and contributing to the research landscape here. “Moving to Scandinavia had a profound influence on my research development. But I wanted to return to my country. I felt a strong sense of Canada as my home, and I wanted to contribute here.”

Robert took the director position with the School in 2015 and says he’s now hitting his stride. “I finally feel like I know a little bit about what I’m doing,” he laughs. He has big visions for the School over the next five years. As the School’s faculty and staff are spread across campus in older buildings that limits their innovative research and collaboration and ability to translate knowledge to society, he’s turned his focus onto one big project. “Thanks to the support o leaders at UBC, a new building is really a hope, but also essential to fulfill our potential. It will be thrilling to see us in a new Kinesiology building is now on the horizon. It will be thrilling to see us in a new space that really allows us to expand our focus and energies, and fulfill our potential.”

Looking forward

When I ask where he plans to expand his research energy, he says there’s still much to study with regard to the oxygen cascade. “I want to study how individual people respond to different doses of training, what’s a healthy level of exercise for you, what are the differences between men and women, and I’m particularly interested in this notion of the ‘rectangularization’ of the life course.” By this, Robert means that without exercise, humans decline in function faster as they age and are more susceptible to chronic disease conditions. With regular exercise you can proceed along the continuum of ‘high functional capacity’ until the last phase of life. When I say that sounds like the best way to go, he laughs in agreement.

Robert himself has never wanted to miss a thing, and his fascination with science, medicine and exercise has helped him get the most out of life on a personal level too. Even with his busy schedule, he still regularly spends time in nature: he enjoys biking, forests, mountains and river trips, where he canoes or river rafts for days at a time. “Life is a wonderful mystery, it’s a gift,” he says. “I have a zest for being part of this fantastic life we’re blessed with. “Physical activity gives me this zest, it gives me my resiliency and a positive attitude.”