Gregory Ruegsegger, a PhD graduate from Biomedical Sciences, grew up in rural Montana. He was always outside playing, being active, and coming home covered in dirt. He particularly remembers “showing my parents what worm or grasshopper I found in the creek that day.”
As he got older, he played sports, and even today he makes sure to exercise each day. This love for activity has led to a passion to pursue research on exercise. And Ruegsegger attributes his active lifestyle as the reason he wants to help others become more active.
While completing his bachelors at Montana State University, Ruegsegger was exposed to research and professional conferences. He then met Dr. Frank Booth, his current advisor, who spoke to him about the research opportunities at the University of Missouri. From these conversations, it seemed like MU would be a good place to investigate. After an in-person visit, he realized that Dr. Booth’s lab was the place for him.
Ruegsegger quickly became accustomed to Columbia, and settled in. Thanks to his meetings with Dr. Booth, he knew, to some degree, the research he would be doing when he came into the program. However, the research project he was assigned to was not exactly what he was used to. He as more comfortable working with skeletal muscle energy metabolism. Rather, he stumbled onto a project that would stretch the limits of exercise physiology into the realm of neuroscience.
“Now I’m doing things in different parts of the brain. Not what I thought I’d do but just as fun, and I’m glad it worked out that way. It’s opened a lot more avenues that I would not have opened if I had done the skeletal muscle type projects.”
Ruegsegger’s research examines the reason why some people are prone to physical activity while others are less likely to engage in regular physical activity. Inactivity has become an epidemic, and it’s not because people don’t know the importance of being active.
“There aren’t too many people that don’t think exercise is “good for health,” yet very few children and adults live physically active lifestyles,” he explained. “While environmental factors certainly influence physical activity levels, genetics do as well.”
Thus, he has turned to exploring the later.
“Right now, I’m doing primarily behavioral, neurobehavioral research, and so I’m looking at genetic factors that are linked to physical activity behavior.” In other words, Ruegsegger is looking “to identify genetic factors in various brain regions that may cause some people to be ‘couch potatoes’ and others to be ‘exercise addicts’.”
When asked about the impetus for this research study, Ruegsegger explained that he hopes to be able to help the US population become more active, and healthier.
“Physical inactivity is a leading cause of most chronic diseases. And physical inactivity is now actually a cause of death,” he said. The numbers are growing, and even rival that of other major diseases. “It’s the fourth leading cause of death. So laziness is an actual cause of death.”
“If I were to ask you if you think that exercise is good for health, the general audience would probably all raise their hand. But if I asked you how many of you engage in 30 to 60 minutes of pretty vigorous activity a day, I bet a lot fewer hands go up,” Ruegsegger added.
However, it is not enough to know that exercise is good, as many Americans struggle to get enough rigorous exercise each day.
“Even with a lot of data saying that exercise is good for your health, most of us don’t exercise enough to obtain the benefits from exercise,” he explained. “So I look at brain regions involved in motivation and addiction. And I’m basically taking pathways that are central to drug addiction, and saying can I use what’s known from drug addiction and apply that to exercise addiction or a lack of exercise addiction.”
Ruegsegger works with selectively bred rats in order to explore the neurological connections to exercise. This new model was selectively bred for animals with high and low exercise behavior. He uses these rats to look at what contributes to the motivation to be active. He plans to use his findings comparatively to see how these same traits function in humans.
“What we do is we cherry-pick pathways that are known to influence behaviors in humans, and we look to see how have these pathways segregated in these animal models.” Essentially, is there a genetic basis behind the motivation to exercise?
“The ultimate goal would be to understand the neuro circuitry that regulates physical activity behavior,” he said. “And then, if we can do that, can we develop therapy or tools to increase physical activity.”
He is working on the ground level of this research, but he acknowledges that other researchers will be able to use his study to go much further to develop other methods or medication to help raise the motivation to be active.
“I think one of the reasons Fitbits are so addicting is because you get that same happy buzz from a Fitbit,” he added. “So, if I get that same dopamine surge from wearing a monitor that tracks my activity behavior, does that make me want to exercise, and is it related to the same pathways that I study in my rats?”
Ruegsegger works with neurologists and exercise physiologists alike, and the interdisciplinary nature of this research is a bit out of Ruegsegger’s wheel house.
“Trying to get a handle on a completely new field when my background is more of a sports science and physiology field, and I’m now asking myself to be a psychologist and sometimes a social scientist.”
The challenge, however, is worth it, as the research has the potential for a big impact on the public.
“If you are physically active throughout your life, you are going to delay the age at which you get chronic diseases. You’re going to live a more healthful life. May not be a longer life, but you will have a much higher quality of life,” explained Ruegsegger. “It’s free to walk. Preventative strategies are very cheap.”
Ruegsegger hopes that this research will lead to a healthier society overall and a heightened awareness of the true benefits of exercise.
“Exercise will prompt some beneficial effect in almost every tissue in your body,” he says. “So if there is a problem, walking is likely going to help that problem regardless of what it is to some degree.”
Additionally, he wants to make a contribution to the research on the neuromolecular basis for the motivation for physical activity.
“This is a pretty new area of research, and there haven’t been many previous attempts, and certainly none or very few where this is the primary focus.” Most of the research on this topic has been done in the last ten years.
His advisor Dr. Booth has had a major impact on his success with this research, and their working relationship has encouraged Ruegsegger to become a better scientist.
“It’s simply looking at our society and seeing where there is a gap in knowledge and a need for knowledge.”
His time at Mizzou has given him opportunities to teach a neuroscience lab for veterinary students and give guest lectures in exercise physiology, an experience he has greatly enjoyed.
Now, Ruegsegger has begun his next adventure. He recently graduated from Mizzou and started a post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN to study “exercise and its possibility for improvements in function in patients who are diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s.”
“There’s a thought that when you exercise there are certain factors that are secreted by tissues in the periphery, primarily skeletal muscle, and these factors that are released by skeletal muscles can talk to the brain and mediate a positive benefit in the brain.”