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From The Director, "Stay Active and Save Your Life!"

Dr. Francis S. Collins

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Photo: NIH

As director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Francis S. Collins has a very busy schedule. But one activity he tries not to miss is his weekly volleyball game with other employees of the NIH. Biking, weight training, and volleyball are all part of his overall strategy to stay active. Exercise and physical activity may help reduce his risk for disease. And he sees regular exercise as a way to maintain health and fitness as he grows older.

What caused you to start exercising regularly?

Like many Americans, I used to eat too much and exercise too little. I couldn't resist a plate of fresh-baked goodies, and had lots of excuses about why there was never time to work out.

I was approaching 60. I realized I'd gained some pounds. I actually did a DNA analysis and found out I was at risk for diabetes, and that's a disease I really don't want to get. It looked like diabetes might be in my future unless I changed my ways.

Where did you turn for help to change your lifestyle?

To determine what actions to take, I turned to science. When many people think of NIH – the nation's biomedical research agency – they picture researchers in high-tech labs exploring new ways to detect and treat disease. NIH does indeed do that. But we also support studies that look at how diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors may prevent disease and promote wellness.

Dr. Collins bikes and plays volleyball regularly.

Dr. Collins bikes and plays volleyball regularly.
Photo:Bill Branson, NIH

The strategy that caught my attention came from the NIH-funded Diabetes Prevention Program trial, which found the combination of increased physical activity and modest weight loss is a highly effective way to lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

What practical, everyday steps did you take first?

While I hadn't yet developed signs of pre-diabetes, the principles of diabetes prevention were firmly laid down by this NIH study. So, I decided to adopt that same approach. Out went my honey buns, giant muffins and other sweet treats. In came small, frequent snacks of almonds, yogurt, and other high-protein, nutritious foods.

I also stepped up my physical activity, committing myself to working out three times a week. In the first six months of my new routine, I lost 25 pounds, about 12 percent of my weight. I've kept that off ever since. My percentage of body fat went from 24 percent to 14 percent, and I can chest press 135 pounds.

Has giving up sweets and exercising regularly helped you?

Yes. I feel a lot better. I hope I'm also staving off any kind of medical problems that might be lurking out there by keeping my weight down and my training up. Also, team sports, like a volleyball game, are great for using every muscle and being in a competitive situation with a bunch of other people in a good-natured way. You're working as a team. And I enjoy the chance to be able to be outside also with a bunch of other people from NIH. I don't get to rub shoulders with all 17,000 people at NIH, so here's one chance to do that.

What would you say are the principal benefits of staying active?

The more you keep active, the more you can keep mobile, the better chance you have of continuing to enjoy good health. Taking charge of your health by choosing the right foods and the right exercise program is among the most important investments you can make in your future.

Any advice for our readers?

We all need to be more active – at any age. That's why NIH has resources like Go4Life. America, it's time to change your lifestyle. It just might save your life.

Spring 2012 Issue: Volume 7 Number 1 Page 2-3