The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

Movement as Medicine

Barry Braun seeks an exercise prescription to fight diabetes and other metabolic disorders
  • Associate professor of Kinesiology Barry Braun and students in the lab

"Think of exercise as you would any other drug. You need to take it with a certain dose and frequency to get the best response."
- Barry Braun

Research by Barry Braun, associate professor of kinesiology at UMass Amherst, reveals that exercise is a medicine that can be prescribed just as any other in the fight against some of society’s most pernicious health challenges.

Braun, an endocrinology and metabolism expert, directs the campus’s Energy Metabolism Laboratory. He investigates the integration of exercise, pharmacology and diet to prevent and manage metabolic disorders such as Type 2 diabetes. The method is called metabolic rehabilitation and it’s a prescription for better health. 

According to 2011 data from the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 26 million Americans have diabetes and another one-third of U.S. adults over 20 are pre-diabetic. Effective drugs are needed to combat that trend. For Braun, one of those drugs is exercise.

“Think of exercise as you would any other drug,” he says. “There’s a dose and frequency with which it needs to be taken to get the best response.” Braun is working on ways to optimize exercise’s disease-fighting effects. He says that, like all drugs, exercise interacts with other substances we put in our bodies, including nutritional supplements, prescription medications, and the foods we eat. Understanding those interactions is important in determining when and how to prescribe exercise.

In studies funded by the American Diabetes Association and the National Institutes of Health, Braun conducted experiments on the effects of exercise and metformin, the most-prescribed drug for Type 2 Diabetes. He hoped to determine whether combining drug treatment and exercise regulated blood sugar better than either exercise or drug treatment alone. The surprising results: “Exercise combined with metformin was not better than exercise alone; it might even be worse. We’re now trying to understand the mechanisms to explain that.” According to Braun, everything—diet, exercise, and pharmaceuticals—works together in a complex biological system.

His collaborators who study drugs and diseases on the molecular level are drawn to Braun’s translational work on living, breathing human beings. “It’s hard,” he notes, “to isolate a single factor in a messy biological system like the human body, but it’s also difficult to make the direct connection to human health when the experiments are done in isolated cells.” Braun adds that one of UMass Amherst’s strengths is it that it has dozens of faculty members, in Kinesiology and elsewhere, tackling the problem from both perspectives.

Braun joined the UMass Amherst faculty in 2000. He received his Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley in 1993 after having received an M.S. from UMass Amherst in 1990 and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982. He is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and a past chairperson of its Nutrition Interest Group. Braun has published more than 65 research articles in top journals and serves as an associate editor for Exercise and Sport Science Reviews. What’s more, he practices what he preaches, taking frequent doses of medicine as a member of the Coffee Cake Running Club.

Karen J. Hayes '85