Researcher is at the Top of Her Game in a World-Class Facility

From her desk in the Ivor Wynne Centre, Kathleen Martin has a clear view of her research. The assistant professor of kinesiology has an office window that overlooks McMaster’s Centre for Health Promotion and Rehabilitation, one of only five international centres of its kind. Martin conducts research in the centre on the benefits of exercise for people with chronic disease and disability, including individuals with arthritis, heart disease and spinal cord injuries (SCI).

At first glance, the centre looks like any other fitness facility. A closer look reveals that much of the equipment has been adapted to accommodate special needs. Two body-weight support treadmills help retrain people who have partial spinal-cord injuries to regain their ability to step. Numerous armergometers (arm-crank machines) and weight training equipment, sharing space with conventional exercise bicycles, have been adapted for wheelchair use.

A dedicated group of more than 120 undergraduate and graduate kinesiology students work in the facility as volunteers. They provide one-on-one training and encouragement for the spinal cord-injured group, also known as the Mac Wheelers. “They are an amazing group of volunteers and I’m so proud of them,” enthuses Martin.

The Mac Wheeler exercise program received a funding boost from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (CRPF) with a $10,000 (US) grant. Martin, who helped author the proposal, says this is the first time the foundation has awarded a grant to a university outside the United States. Combined with other funding the grant will be used to hire staff for the program.

Last month, Martin received $110,000 from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research for a two-year study to develop a measure to determine how much physical activity is needed to provide health benefits to spinal cord-injured participants. People with spinal cord injuries present a special research challenge when it comes to measuring their activity levels: They can’t be put on a pedometer and, for many, their heart rates don’t vary as a function of physical activity intensity. Nor do they sweat.

“We’re trying to develop a paper and pencil measure of physical activity. This involves several steps including interviewing people with SCI, pilot testing the measure, and conducting some preliminary hypothesis tests of roughly 250 participants from the Chedoke, Lyndhurst and McMaster SCI programs,” explains Martin. A dozen participants will also wear a portable VO2 analyzer (which measures the volume of oxygen used) for a day to cross-validate the pencil and paper measure with a physiological measure of their activity levels.

“We hope to develop a measure that can ultimately be used to determine how much activity they need to prevent heart disease. Eventually, this measure could be used to develop guidelines that will provide health benefits and a longer life for people with spinal cord injuries,” says Martin.

Martin’s research is greatly enhanced by the opportunity to work in a world-class centre. The facility, combined with the department’s reputation as one of the top kinesiology programs in Canada, were part of the reason she wasn’t interested when Yale University attempted to court her last year.

“Working at McMaster gives Martin much personal and professional satisfaction. “I love it here and I’m not going anywhere else!”

Her research has been noted at other institutions as well, and earned her the Early Career Distinguished Scholar Award given by the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity. Given within seven years post-PhD, the award is not offered regularly and productivity does not, in itself, determine whether a candidate is worthy. The individual’s research record must show “high scholarship, exhibiting accuracy, critical ability, and thoroughness.”

Martin’s research record presents an intriguing dichotomy: she investigates the benefits of exercise for special-needs groups on the one hand and pursues research in self-presentation (the process of controlling or monitoring other people’s impressions) on the other.

Self-presentation was the subject of a study she conducted and which was published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology last year. The study results indicated that the participants perceived exercisers to have better personality traits-they are more confident, sociable, intelligent and harder working than non-exercisers. Similarly, they rated exercisers more favourably than non-exercisers for physical attributes such as sexual and physical attractiveness, strength and an overall healthy appearance. The findings attracted media attention from across North America.

Martin is awaiting word on publication of another study that determines psychological benefits of exercise for female participants who perform their exercise in front of a mirror versus exercise without a mirror. The study’s results challenge the long-held practice of mirroring fitness facilities, and will likely result in another series of media inquiries.