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Evaluating Physical Activity

Alumna Barbara Ainsworth knows the value of physical activity and helps others understand it

Growing up in Claremont, CA, Barbara Ainsworth was always active in sports and loved swimming and volleyball. But it wasn’t until she sat down with her school’s career counselor that she made up her mind to be a physical education teacher like her older sister. “I was told I had two options: nurse or teacher,” recalls Ainsworth, who is now a professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University (ASU). “I didn’t want to be indoors or wear a uniform, so I decided physical education made sense for me.”

As an undergraduate at Fresno State University, she imagined she would teach somewhere in southern California. But by the time she graduated in 1974, job prospects in physical education were scarce. Thankfully, a professor told her about Title IX legislation. Enacted in 1972, Title IX meant many more women would soon be participating in college sports, so her professor suggested she think about coaching.

She liked the idea and soon applied for a graduate assistantship at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “I had no idea where Minnesota was when I got admitted, so I just got a map and started driving,” Ainsworth says, laughing. After earning her master’s degree in 1975, she went to the College of St. Benedict where she taught physical education courses in aquatics and cross-country skiing and coached women’s swimming and tennis.

She returned to the University to earn her Ph.D. in exercise physiology in 1987. While there, she met professor Art Leon, who helped shape the research interests she remains passionate about today. Leon, who was then in the School of Public Health, offered Ainsworth a two-year, post-doctorate appointment, and together they worked on a grant-funded project looking at people’s physical activity levels as compared to their responses on national surveys.

“The federal government was interested in knowing how valuable and reliable these surveys are,” explains Ainsworth, who earned a master’s degree in public health while working with Leon. The duo was also among the initial developers of the Compendium of Physical Activities , which Ainsworth still manages today. The compendium rates the amount of energy expended when doing more than 800 different physical activities, such as walking or mowing the lawn. “People use it to evaluate how active they are and how those activities are helping them,” she says.

Before joining the faculty at ASU in 2005, Ainsworth taught exercise physiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, served as the director of the Prevention Research Center at the University of South Carolina, and worked in administration at San Diego State University. She is also the current president of the American College of Sport Medicine. “I realized my heart was in teaching and being with students, so I relocated to Arizona and I plan to stay here,” she says.

Story by Meleah Maynard | Photo by Tom Story, Arizona State University | September 2011

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