CORVALLIS - During the decade of the 1990s, Oregon State University researcher Christine Snow conducted a series of studies looking at the effects of exercise on bone density to see if there was some activity women could do to help offset the potentially crippling disease known as osteoporosis.
It turns out there was.
The OSU researchers found that post-menopausal women who went through a series of exercises wearing weighted vests could vastly improve the strength in their ankles, knees and hips, making the risk of falling much less. Those same exercises helped women maintain, and even slightly increase, their bone mass, and significantly improve their balance.
The findings were critical because women lose as much as 50 percent of their bone density in the years immediately following menopause, and the resulting hip fractures caused by falls amount to a $14 billion annual health care problem - not to mention the pain and inconvenience for those involved.
So Snow published journal articles and worked with the university's news office on releasing the research results to the news media. What was missing was a way for interested Oregonians to take those research results and apply it to their own lives.
The OSU Extension Service has worked with Snow and former Oregon State Ph.D. student Janet Shaw to create an educational program for individuals, classes for group participation, and a series of training seminars to teach fitness directors and other practitioners how to successfully implement the research results.
The public interest in this initiative, says Donna Gregerson, is intense.
"What is particularly rewarding about this effort is that we're taking the national caliber research that was conducted in our own backyard, and sharing it with the people of Oregon," said Gregerson, staff chair of the Benton County Extension Office. "It's a visible, effective example of the partnership between OSU's research component and Extension mission."
The effort began when Shaw, now on the faculty at the University of Utah, organized a study at OSU on the effects of exercise. Working under the supervision of Snow, they enlisted about 40-50 postmenopausal women for their study, which lasted several months.
Then a funny thing happened. When the study was over, the group stayed together, meeting on its own.
"We could see the benefits of doing the exercises that Janet taught us," said Gregerson, who was part of the original research group. "So that core group tried to stay together and keep those exercises going."
A partnership formed involving OSU Extension home economics faculty and researchers in the College of Health and Human Performance to produce a video and printed resources about the exercises. Those resources were then evaluated for their effectiveness.
"One of the findings was that it didn't appear that women would stick with the exercise regimen on their own," Gregerson said. "This older group of women, including some in their 70s and 80s, seemed more willing to do those exercises with the support of a group."
So the OSU Extension Service worked with Teresa Knight at the Benton Center in Corvallis to adapt the Extension video and printed materials into a class. First offered in 1997, the class drew 30 participants the first term. Another section was opened and drew another 35 women.
"We realized I couldn't teach these classes alone if they continued to grow at this pace," Knight said. "The feedback from participants was encouraging enough to realize that what we were doing had statewide interest."
The Extension Service decided to expand its efforts and has held three seminars since last July to train other people to conduct similar classes. Limited to a dozen participants, they quickly reached capacity, drawing from community colleges, fitness centers, senior centers and hospitals in the mid-Willamette Valley to the central coast.
Either Snow or Shaw have been at each session to explain the research and its effect on bone health. Knight helped direct the exercise portion of the seminars, "training the trainers" to properly used weighted vests for a series of exercises that include bench stepping, lunges, squats and other routines. And OSU graduate students presented sessions on anatomy and other topics.
This May, two more sessions are scheduled - in Clackamas County and in Washington County.
Eventually, Gregerson said, these sessions will be taught to fitness trainers all over the state, who will launch their own classes and programs. Already, nearly 2,000 people have either participated in one of the OSU Extension study groups, classes or training sessions.
And the program recently received accreditation from the American College of Sports Medicine, so workshop participants can receive up to five continuing education credits.
"People are knocking at the door trying to take the next step, which is to apply the results of the research to their personal lives," Gregerson said. "We're trying to help them do just that."
Persons interested in learning more about the exercises may call Donna Gregerson at the Benton County Extension Office at 541-757-6750.