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New psychology professor studies link between physical activity, cognitive health

by Jason Kornwitz

Chuck Hillman prac­tices what he preaches, applying his research find­ings to his per­sonal life.

When he’s not studying the rela­tion­ship between phys­ical activity and cog­ni­tive health—with a par­tic­ular emphasis on how diet, exer­cise, and body mass affect atten­tion, memory, and pro­cessing speed—he’s biking, playing ice hockey, or lifting weights in his home gym.

“My work demon­strates that phys­ical activity ben­e­fits people of all ages in terms of brain func­tion, cog­ni­tion, and scholastic per­for­mance,” says Hillman, a newly hired psy­chology pro­fessor who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences.

Hillman comes to North­eastern from the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois, where he still serves as an adjunct pro­fessor. He earned his master’s degree in exer­cise and sport sci­ences from the Uni­ver­sity of Florida in 1997 and his doc­torate in kine­si­ology from the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land in 2000.

Throughout his illus­trious career, Hillman has received sev­eral pres­ti­gious honors for his efforts to better under­stand the fac­tors that con­tribute to increased cog­ni­tive health in both chil­dren and adults. In 2007, for example, he was named one of the Insti­tute for Inter­na­tional Sport’s 100 Most Influ­en­tial Sports Edu­ca­tors. Eight years later, in 2015, he was elected to the National Academy of Kine­si­ology, becoming just the 550th fellow of the self-​​described “infor­ma­tion leader in phys­ical activity and health.” He cur­rently sits on the Health and Human Ser­vices’ Phys­ical Activity Guide­lines for Amer­i­cans Advi­sory Com­mittee, which includes rec­om­men­da­tions for Amer­i­cans age 6 and over to main­tain or improve their health through reg­ular exercise.

He has deliv­ered more than 80 lec­tures around the world; pub­lished more than 140 peer-​​reviewed journal arti­cles; and received more than $25 mil­lion in external funding from the National Insti­tutes of Health, the Nike Foun­da­tion, and many other notable agencies.

His ongoing study of how phys­ical activity ben­e­fits the ado­les­cent brain—which was funded in part by the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Insti­tute on Child Health and Human Development—shows that kids who run around for at least 70 min­utes per day exhibit improved thinking skills com­pared to those who aren’t as active. Another study—for which he is a co-​​investigator of a five-​​year, $21 mil­lion grant from the NIH’s National Insti­tute of Aging—seeks to uncover the rela­tion­ship between phys­ical activity and brain health in older adults.

“If you develop an interest in phys­ical activity during child­hood,” says Hillman, whose find­ings have rou­tinely been cited by pol­i­cy­makers and school admin­is­tra­tors, “then you’ll be more likely to pre­serve those habits through adult­hood when your life gets busier.”

Hillman chose North­eastern for its focus on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research and col­lab­o­ra­tion. He is par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in working with pro­fes­sors in the Col­lege of Engi­neering to har­ness the power of wear­able fit­ness trackers and con­necting with his peers in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design to tap into the pos­si­bil­i­ties of vir­tual reality.

The goal of his lab—which he envi­sions as a hub for the study of cog­ni­tive neuroscience—is to build an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary envi­ron­ment “where both stu­dents and fac­ulty can work together to develop sci­ence that sup­ports cog­ni­tive and brain health across the life span.” He can’t wait to get started: “We have a very strong psy­chology pro­gram here,” he says, “and the quality of our stu­dents is above and beyond what I had expected.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on October 12, 2016.

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