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Hiking Down to a Science

Almost anyone who has hiked uphill knows the feeling. You've just trekked a mile, maybe three miles, maybe even 10 miles or more. The hike may have only been up a small grade, or maybe it was a mountain. But now that you've come back down and returned home or to your campsite, your body feels Sore, with a capital S. Your joints and muscles ache.

That hill was just too steep, you think. My body can't handle climbing. Nope. According to Julianne Abendroth-Smith, associate professor of exercise science, that's not the problem. You're more likely to get injured on those coveted downward slopes than on the tough uphill ones. "When you're really sore after you get home from a hike, it's not from going uphill, it's more from coming back down," she says. "That pounding on the body can really take a toll."

Abendroth-Smith's area of expertise is biomechanics, the study of the forces on the body from a physics standpoint. Herself an avid hiker and lover of the outdoors, Abendroth-Smith has studied the effects of downhill hiking on the body. And hikers really put a lot of force on their knees, ankles and hips when they pound their way down a hill, she found.

Her solution: Use trekking poles. The poles are popular among hikers in Europe, but people who use them in America are more likely to draw comments like "Are you going skiing?" But Abendroth-Smith's research shows that using two poles while navigating a downhill slope is a great way to avoid injury because it lessens the amount of force placed on the body. Even one pole is better than nothing, she says.

Abendroth-Smith has spent hours in the exercise science lab having people hike for her, with and without poles, so she and her students can monitor what happens to their bodies. Involving students in lab research is one of her favorite parts of being a professor. "One of the reasons I do practical research is because it gets them involved," she says. "They can see the practical applications."

She also has studied the differences between men's and women's use of the poles, finding that women tend to rely on them more for balance and stability. This shows one of the other reasons Abendroth-Smith believes poles are good for less-experienced hikers: They can bring comfort. For those who aren't as likely to get out on the trail, who may be worried that they can't make it or that their balance isn't good enough to walk on anything except asphalt, poles can be a solution. One of Abendroth-Smith's mottos regarding exercise is that people are more likely to keep doing it if they're participating in something fun. "People need to understand the importance of physical activity," she says. "It's not just about exercise. It's any form of movement."

Abendroth-Smith became interested in exercise science because, as she says, "I'm a nerd and a jock, so I guess it's a good combination." As a newer science, her field still struggles to be taken seriously instead of simply being considered PE, she says -- and she strives to be recognized as a scientist.

Biomechanics, her focus, is far from simple. It involves complex analysis of forces on the body, and is often considered the toughest class in the exercise science major, she says. "Everyone always says it's the hardest class you can take, but I think it's the easiest because it's math and physics. You do the math, you follow the physics and you get an answer."

Showing these students a different form of science and how they can apply it in the real world is one of the fun parts of her job, Abendroth-Smith says. She estimates that about 60 percent or more of Willamette's exercise science majors go on to graduate school. "It's so fun to see them move on and know that we helped influence them," she says.