One American dies every 34 seconds from cardiovascular disease (CVD), claiming the lives of 1.4 million Americans each year. Researchers at Stanford University's Prevention Research Center have discovered two ways for Americans to lower their CVD risk — regular exercise and a nutritious diet.

“When you consider the average risk in the country for cardiovascular disease, it's mainly related to lack of physical activity and nutrition,” says Dr. Stephen Fortmann, MD, director of the center. “From a public health perspective, we know we need to increase physical activity levels, decrease obesity levels and do work in nutrition. Almost everyone who is overweight is also not very active, but people tend to ignore that part of the equation.”

Thirty-four years ago, researchers founded the center to conduct community intervention studies. Dr. Bill Haskell, Ph.D., who has been a professor of medicine at Stanford University for the past 34 years, says the university has conducted cutting-edge research on the effect of exercise on the increase in HDL cholesterol and the lowering of blood fats. The Center's expanded research focuses on obesity, diabetes, cancer, smoking cessation, sleep deprivation and the benefits of exercise for older adults.

Today, researchers are investigating the role of exercise and weight loss on the possible reversal of Type 2 diabetes. In Haskell's recent study, he learned that young men who were more physically active handled blood glucose more effectively because physical activity increased insulin sensitivity. He collaborated with Dr. Gerald Reaven, another Stanford University professor, to conduct research on sedentary lean men and men who were 10K runners.

“More physically active individuals can get by with less insulin production,” Haskell says. “That's become more and more important because it's a potential mechanism by which physical activity helps prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes.”

Haskell and his research team are also studying the benefits of physical activity in improving older adults' endurance, strength and balance. Their research project seeks to discover if adults aged 70-89 years old can decrease their amount of hospitalization and risk of earlier death by exercising regularly. Because it may be difficult for the seniors to travel to the university campus, Stanford often collaborates with YMCAs, clubs and community centers to recruit study participants and conduct exercise training.

Stanford researchers also are conducting studies on the other end of the age spectrum. Dr. Tom Robinson has conducted controlled studies on the detrimental effects of TV watching on young children. The pediatrician limited the children's time in front of televisions to one hour a day, and as a result, these children gained weight at a slower rate, increased body fat more slowly, increased their activity level and were less aggressive in the school yard. He is now focusing his research on how African-American girls can prevent weight gain through an after-school dance program.

“This is an important population where few people have been able to find activities that are of sufficient interest for the girls to participate long term,” Haskell says. “A lot of people around the country are looking at the program to see how they can replicate it.”

Facility name: Stanford University Prevention Research Center

Location: Stanford, CA

Research type: Chronic disease prevention strategies

Funding sources: National Institutes of Health, private foundations and state funding