Exercise and appetite study brings Norwich, Central Vermont communities together © June 18, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

2010 Norwich graduate Sophie Leclerc keeps a close eye on Barb Amell as she participates in a study on exercise and appetite.

photo by David W. Smith2010 Norwich graduate and hockey player Sophie Leclerc keeps a close eye on Barb Amell as she participates in a study on exercise and appetite.

Some of the most satisfying moments of Norwich University Professor Elizabeth Wuorinen’s ongoing research project on exercise and appetite happen when she observes her student assistants at work.

“It’s great listening to them talk,” said Wuorinen, gesturing to an adjoining room in the test laboratory where students Sophie Leclerc and Stefan Wuorinen discussed the results of the morning’s data gathering efforts. “They work together and develop these friendships that are just amazing.”

This research project on the relationships between diet, exercise, energy, hunger and weight fluctuation began in 2008, and has included the efforts of many students and dozens of women from Central Vermont. She believes it is one of the largest research projects that has ever been performed at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college.

Recent graduate Leclerc and Stefan, Elizabeth’s son who will be a third-year biology major in fall 2010, were performing the second of three assessments they do with every volunteer for the project, which focuses on middle-aged women. Test subjects—more than 20 local women—commit to daily weekday workouts. The assessments, which happen every 10 weeks, collect information about their fitness level and include blood tests and written questionnaires where they record impressions about exertion and appetite. Afterwards, participants are allowed to eat, and students note how many calories they consume as a measure of hunger.

They work together
and develop these friendships that are
just amazing.

~ Elizabeth Wuorinen,
biology/phys. ed. professor

Students organize workouts and run the assessments. Stefan is a trained phlebotomist and is in charge of blood tests.

Before Prof. Wuorinen arrived, Leclerc was hard at work taking volunteer Barb Amell through the paces of the rigorous process. As Amell ran on a treadmill in a basement lab in Norwich University’s math and science center—her face obscured by a breathing apparatus—Leclerc monitored vital signs, speed and length of time running.

“Her [heart rate’s] not that high,” said Leclerc, who graduated with her physical education degree the previous week and plans to attend graduate school in the fall. “She could probably be going for a while.”

After running a few more minutes, Amell started to pull off the apparatus while signaling to Leclerc, who leaned over the machine to reduce the speed. “Nice job. Nice job,” said Leclerc. “We’re going to keep you going at [level] 2, just to keep your heart rate up.”

Afterwards, Amell filled out the questionnaire while waiting for Stefan to draw a blood sample. Everyone in the room chatted comfortably about difficult exercises favored by trainers—leg lifts, “planks” and “bridges”—and joked about who was the most merciless. Participants train in small groups in settings that range from the outdoor track to the weight room. Workouts are a combination of cardio training, calisthenics and weight training.

Stefan will immediately spin the plasma sample in a centrifuge located in the next room and test it for levels of glucose, insulin, free fatty acids and what he calls “hunger hormones,” such as ghrelin and leptin. During the summer, Stefan leads some of the early-morning workouts, but sticks to blood work when classes are in session.

“We have two weeks where we’re testing everyone,” he said. “Those two weeks are a big commitment.”

Assisting Wuorinen during the summer session are four students paid through a two-year grant provided by the Vermont Genetics Network that started in June 2009. Students generally lead exercise classes, which is also a big commitment, as they begin as early as 5 a.m. to accommodate participants’ schedules.

“It’s the only time I’m not busy,” said Amell, an employee at the National Life insurance company located near Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus.

Amell knew Wuorinen, and volunteered because she thought it might help her get into an exercise routine. While rising early for a rigorous workout was rough at first, Amell is proud of the weight she’s lost. She’ll also miss the camaraderie of exercising with the group when the 20-month commitment is complete. Amell said she enjoyed the chance to connect with people at Norwich.

“The community gets involved with the students and you get to know them,” she said.

Wuorinen, who teaches biology and physical education, sees students slowly gain a deeper understanding of the research process. In one example involving an earlier group of volunteers, students processing plasma samples noticed repeated abnormalities in data from several volunteers. As research subjects, the women were not supposed to eat before daily exercise. The students, however, caught them cheating through careful examination of the lab results and identification of high glucose levels in their blood.

“They ate,” said Wuorinen.

She plans to publish her study at the end of the grant cycle and believes the collected data may take them in a number of directions, involving exercise’s effects on hormones, metabolic rate, hunger, weight change, and perhaps even psychological profiles.

“I’ve saved every single email from my subjects,” she said. “That’s the life part of it—the life changes are amazing.”