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Lumen Scholar finds focus on 'feeling good' may be the best exercise prescription

Nicole Doolen '17 is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrates their academic and creative achievements.

Lumen scholar Nicole Doolen '17, an exercise science major, and her mentor Wally Bixby, associate professor of exercise science.

By Sarah Mulnick '17

It’s an old, familiar cycle: you know that exercise is good for you, and after you finally start a new regimen, you fizzle out and fall back into old habits. And then the next regimen comes along, and then the next, and the cycle continues.  

Elon University student researcher and Lumen Scholar Nicole Doolen ’17 seeks to change that by looking at exercise in an entirely different light. If participants in an exercise regimen work out based on how good they’re feeling throughout the workout rather than on how hard they’re pushing or how fast their heart is pounding, can that increase fitness levels and transform the cycle into long-lasting exercise habits? Her study during the last two years has shown that it can. 

Doolen has pursued this eye-opening research as a recipient of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrates their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

The research findings have been reassuring to the exercise science major, who considers exercise a significant part of her life. “I run because it’s fun,” she said, laughing when she added: “I know that most people don’t think that’s true, but exercise is a huge part of my life.”

Doolen participated in gymnastics for 11 years and soccer for even longer than that, and said that exercise shaped her life. She wants to share that passion with others, she added, because she’s seen the benefits that it has had on her life.

Unfortunately, despite the obvious and documented benefits of exercise, it isn’t as popular as it should be. With widespread obesity a common problem in the United States, physical exercise is a solution that often gets overlooked.

“Exercise science can study how good exercise is for people, but if no one is exercising, that’s a problem,” Doolen said. “We can share the research and the benefits, but it doesn’t make a difference if people aren’t working out.”

Her research has sought to change that. Traditionally, exercise prescriptions urge participants to maintain certain levels of intensity—moderate, hard or varying at different intervals. The challenge is creating an prescription that helps a person make exercise a habit they maintain, rather than an activity they perform just for a set period of time.

Doolen decided to focus on implementing an effect-based exercise prescription, which encourages working out so that the participant feels “good,” and then working to maintain that level throughout the regimen. The hope for Doolen and her mentor, Associate Professor of Exercise Science Wally Bixby, was that participants would attain a similar level of fitness as traditional prescriptions, but maintain the habit even after the six-week period was completed.

The Honors Fellow worked with her research mentor to design a study with two groups: one assigned traditional prescriptions, the other effect-based. After six weeks, Doolen tested the participants’ fitness levels, and has followed up after one, three and six months to determine whether habits were formed as a result of the prescriptions.

A month after the study concluded, more participants had dropped the traditional regimen, and fewer had finished that series than the group whose prescription focused on working out to feel good.

“Effect-based prescriptions may be an effective tool in getting people to continue exercise,” Doolen said, noting that the fitness levels from the two groups had been comparable.

That challenges a prevailing notion in exercise science that working out to hit a certain intensity level is the only way to make long-term changes. Doolen’s research suggests positive consequences for the longevity of exercise habits, as the participants in her study who were given an effect-based prescription were less likely to stop exercising both during and after the trial.

Doolen’s efforts as a Lumen scholar have included coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances. Doolen has already presented at several conferences, including the South East American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National ACSM conference and at Elon. She is currently working on transforming her study into a journal manuscript, hopefully to be published in the spring.

Bixby, an associate professor of exercise science at Elon, has worked with Doolen since her freshman year, when she approached him about potentially doing research together.

None of the acclaim Doolen has received is surprising to Bixby. “She’s dedicated and she works hard,” he said. “She does what she says she’s going to do, and she seems to enjoy doing that.”

Doolen said she sees that same passion for knowledge in her mentor. "The biggest thing he's shown me is the importance of being passionate about what you're teaching or researching," she said, adding that he has led by example in his passion for teaching, research and his own commitment to exercise. "It shows through as a professor and in our research. It's something he does because he cares."

That impassioned attitude towards scholarship and hobbies is what drew Doolen to Elon, where she knew that she could try new things. While here, she’s been involved with Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity, worked at the challenge course, and pursued her studies through the Honors Fellows.

Her work as an Honors Fellow presented Doolen with the opportunity to publish a philosophy article her sophomore year. The article, about the sexual ethics inherent in purity balls, used a virtue ethics-based framework to understand whether those balls help develop the participants’ personal ethics. It was published in the Stance Undergraduate Philosophy Journal.

“It was something I never expected to do,” Doolen admitted. She was nervous for the class, she added, because as she told her parents, she “doesn’t do philosophy. But it ended up being probably one of my favorite classes at Elon.”

Doolen, a native of Oregon, is currently applying to physical therapy schools all over the country, and hopes to eventually end up back on the West Coast.

Sarah Mulnick,
11/10/2016 10:35 AM