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July 27, 2017

PhD alumnus Ross Arena reframes the discussion: life span becomes health span

“Healthy living should be viewed as medicine.”

That’s the message shared by Ross Arena, PhD’01 (PHIS), on a recent return to the MCV Campus. Instead of being reactive to the spate of chronic conditions now affecting the world, physicians should focus on preventing them in the first place, he says.

Ross Arena Ph.D.

Likely the most published physical therapist in the world, Ross Arena, PhD’01 (PHIS), says if everyone changed small things in terms of physical activity, there’d be a huge impact on health care economics and outcomes. Photo credit: Skip Rowland

While that seems obvious, he acknowledged that many people feel that diet and exercise are an all-or-nothing business. “We’re sending a message that if you’re not doing 150 minutes of exercise each week that it’s not worth it,” he said in his July 27 presentation, “Creating the Healthy Living Health Care System to Combat Chronic Diseases,” at a VCU Pauley Heart Center research conference.

“But something is better than nothing, and even some exercise can improve health.” Every 1,000 steps can reduce the risk of heart disease and other conditions, he says. “I’d like to see us reframe the discussion around physical activity.”

“If everyone changed small things, we’d have a huge impact on health care economics and outcomes.” Because, he noted, health span – the period of life where one is generally healthy and disease-free – can be more important than life span. A healthy lifestyle at age 50 can increase life expectancy by seven years and reduce disability by six.

Arena is currently head of the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is internationally renowned as an expert in exercise physiology and heart failure, and has participated in crafting the guidelines of the American Heart Association. He’s a prolific writer – likely the most published physical therapist in the world – with more than 700 peer review articles, abstracts and book chapters to his credit.

“We’ve been proud to see how Dr. Arena’s findings are influencing his field,” says Peter F. Buckley, dean of the School of Medicine. “And we’re delighted to have him return to campus to share his research and collaborate with our faculty. “

Arena is acclaimed for implementing healthy living initiatives in the academic, clinical and community settings. While not easy, it’s possible to get out of a siloed system at major academic medical centers, he says. He cites research being done at VCU by Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., Salvatore Carbone, M.S., and others in the Pauley Heart Center as a success story. “I’ve always liked the collaborative spirit here,” he says. He enjoys working with researchers at VCU’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research. “In fact, I might be working on more projects with VCU now than when I worked here.”

In addition to his Ph.D. in physiology, Arena also earned a master’s degree in physical therapy at VCU in 1997. He served on the faculty from 2002-10, and remains close to several former campus colleagues, including cardiology faculty member Mary Ann Peberdy, M.D. He fondly remembers other physiology faculty including Roland Pittman, Ph.D., Alexandre Fabiato, M.D., Ph.D., and George Ford, Ph.D. “Each had a significant impact on my career.”

“I was first drawn to VCU because I really liked the faculty and the programs. And then staying on, there were good opportunities. From a research perspective, continuing to do work with cardiology was important. Their collaborative, team science approach was important for me. The work done by Antonio’s group is very impactful and I am honored to be involved.”

Health professionals working together is key to reducing heart disease, cancer, dementia and other conditions, Arena noted. Promoting health literacy, designing clinical space to allow collaboration and spending a little money up front will help move from a treatment model to a preventative one.

“Immersion in a culture of health is so logical,” he says. “Healthy living is a polypill.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016