Kathy Gunter is an associate professor of Exercise and Sport Science and Extension specialist with Extension Family & Community Health at Oregon State University. She was recently named the Healthy Lifestyles and Obesity Prevention in Children and Families core director in the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. Previously she worked as a faculty research associate and instructor in the former Department of Exercise and Sport Science in the CPHHS, and as an instructor in Public Health. She is a proud Oregon State alum, who received her Ph.D. in Human Performance with a Public Health minor.
What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?
“I’ve always been physically active. I was a competitive athlete in my youth and early adult life, and later transitioned to a recreational athlete as my life became fuller with family and professional responsibilities. My interest in the field of exercise and sport science has mirrored my personal passion and lifespan undulations. My initial training as an undergraduate was in pre-therapy and exercise physiology – and I was very focused on understanding how to prevent injury and improve performance. In graduate school, I became more interested in learning about the benefits of physical activity to prevent chronic disease and in particular promote skeletal health. Once I became a parent, the notion of doing something that would make my daughter proud became really important to me. I became truly fixated on figuring out how I could construct a career that allowed me to apply the myriad discoveries we make as scientists to optimally impact the populations we study in order to promote health – and selfishly, to make my daughter proud. This was about the time my research took on a new look and everything I was doing in the lab to understand the benefits of physical activity was being applied out in the field, in schools and in community settings.”
What does your current research entail?
“I’m still working to promote skeletal health through physical activity, but the focus of that research is more about evaluating evidence-based programs such as Better Bones & Balance that have evolved from the research. We know physical activity is good for bone, but have we constructed programs that enable anyone’s mom, dad or grandparent to participate in those programs and achieve the positive effects we observed in the lab.
The larger focus of my current work is on trying to understand the environmental factors that affect children and families’ abilities to enact the behaviors that will promote a healthy weight and prevent obesity. And in particular, we are trying to understand the nature of these factors among rural residents. By nature of the complexity of the problem, this work is very collaborative. We study the influence of the home, school and community environments on healthful eating and physical activity behaviors and work with communities, schools and families to affect changes that will make it easier to do these things.”
What sparked your interest in this topic?
“I’m a true believer in the power of physical activity to promote health. I’ve observed it personally and professionally and so it is pretty easy to maintain an interest in something I feel so passionately about. However to what health problem I direct this passion has ebbed and flowed. In my current role as both a research scientist and an Extension specialist, I am tasked with serving the people of Oregon, a very rural state. In so doing I must consider where my skills can impact the greatest number of Oregonians. Childhood obesity is an epidemic everywhere, the opportunity to obtain funding to help understand the nature of the problem here in Oregon and have a positive impact on rural communities presented itself, and wonderful collaborators were willing to partner. We were very fortunate to be given the opportunity to contribute to our understanding of childhood obesity.”
How will this make a difference?
“If we can take the focus off of individuals and stop telling them ‘you need to move more and eat better’ and instead focus on creating environments that make the healthy food choice, or the active option easy and ultimately, the default, we may be able to stem the tide of obesity.”
What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?
“The stories that people share are fascinating, and the understandings that emerge as a result of those stories are powerful. My work historically has been very quantitative, very investigator-driven. The work we are doing is very community-engaged, and I am learning that I have a lot to learn.”
What do you hope is the outcome of your research?
“For the first time in about 200 years the current generation of children, my daughter’s generation – may have a shorter lifespan than their parents due to the rapid rise in obesity. We hope to contribute to the body of knowledge and available resources to ensure that is not the case for future generations.”
Are you working with anyone else in the CPPHS on this project?
“I work most closely with Dr. Deborah John, who is an expert in physical activity behavior and who has done previous work exploring the influence of the community-environment on physical activity. We also work closely with Dr. Melinda Manore in nutrition and Lena Etuk, who is a social demographer. In the field we have a fabulous team of Extension faculty. Outside of CPPHS we are working with Dr. Gail Langellotto in horticulture and with several faculty from other land grant universities.”
What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?
“We are working on a proposal to look specifically at childhood obesity in young, rural families and to explore the relationships between obesity-preventing behaviors, self-regulation and academic performance in rural preschool children.”
What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?
“From a philosophical perspective – the best advice I ever got was really the worst advice I ever got. I say this because it is the one piece of advice that has stuck with me and I reference it often. As I was transitioning from graduate student to professional, searching for positions and developing my own criteria for what would constitute my ‘perfect career,’ I was told, ‘Kathy, you can’t mountain bike with your girlfriends forever.’ Even then, I must have known where I would ultimately end up. Now it is my career goal to ensure that everyone can mountain bike (or be physically active in a way that moves them) with their girlfriends, parents or children forever!”
What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?
“As you might expect, I love to run, ride my bike and try new activities. I also love to read. All of this is better when I do it with my family and friends – particularly my 8-year-old daughter, Mia. She inspires most everything I do.”
Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.