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Doctor Takes Own Prescription

Dr. Ralph S. Paffenbarger had finally decided to practice what his own research was preaching.

“My data was showing me that people who were active were less likely to develop coronary heart disease,” said Paffenbarger, an exercise researcher affiliated with Harvard.

So on the day after Thanksgiving in 1967, at 45 years old, he began to jog.

“It was terrible,” Paffenbarger said. “I was exhausted by the time I was down to the end of the block.”

He didn’t struggle for long. And on April 19, 1968, a game but not-yet-ready Paffenbarger ran the Boston Marathon in 5 hours, 5 minutes.

“I was on crutches for days,” he said.

Paffenbarger, now 74, is still exercising, although it’s now 3-1/2 miles of walking a day. The pioneering scientist in the health payoff of exercise is still preaching what his data shows.

Paffenbarger’s work followed the lives of Harvard and Pennsylvania university alumni. He found that those who stayed active had a lower risk of heart disease.

Paffenbarger’s early research buttressed similar findings by Dr. Jeremy Morris of the University of London. Paffenbarger and Morris began a chain of research that changed the scientific and public understanding of exercise. For their work, the two shared the first International Olympic Committee prize for sport science. The IOC Olympic Prize, given July 14, carries a cash award of $250,000 and an Olympic medal.

Before their research, exercise was done only by trained athletes preparing for competition, and exertion was hard work for laborers.

“Time was, when a man finished his work, it was time for rest,” Paffenbarger said. “Now it is time for exercise. We have a different attitude.”

Or at least some people do.

Some 60 percent of Americans are sedentary, “and that’s terrible,” Paffenbarger said. Exercisers can follow the guidelines underlined in a recent Surgeon General’s report. It found that risk of disease is reduced with moderate exercise such as walking. The report is one outgrowth of Paffenbarger’s finding that men who are active tend to outlive those who are not.