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New research to eliminate cookie-cutter approach to exercise for those living with diabetes

Rob Petrella smiling for the camera.

Dr. Rob Petrella, professor, Department of Family Medicine, recently received a grant of $2.7 million from The Public Health Agency of Canada’s Canadian Diabetes Strategy to fund his research, supporting people living with diabetes across Canada.

Using technology and new smartphone applications, the project seeks to eliminate a cookie-cutter approach to exercise for those living with the chronic disease. This project culminates years of research and clinical work for Dr. Petrella.

Dr. Petrella has dedicated his entire academic, research and medical career to the study of family medicine, geriatrics, and exercise physiology. He has used his experience as a family physician in London, and researcher in physiology and exercise physiology and focused it on applied research programs with clinical applications.

The foundation of his latest research project has been laid during the past five years. Working with a team in London and a team in Finland, they looked at constructing models of prescriptive exercise in patients at risk for diabetes with a goal of trying to prevent cardiovascular complications. In doing so, they learned a lot through animal studies and modeling with different types of technologies to determine early markers of change. They then developed an exercise prescription they believed would work to make those changes. It was tested in the clinic and was determined to be effective.

They found that exercise prescription, if followed, made people healthier in terms of their metabolic profile and fitness level. Next, they wanted to extend the reach of their studies. Dr. Petrella and his team believed it was important that the prescription work outside of a clinical setting and began investigating new technologies including smartphones and peripheral devices that could be used to deliver the prescription to patients anywhere.

They were able to develop new smartphone applications, and with industry partners, developed a program to test the way the prescription could be used. They travelled an hour north of London and tested the technology in a community in Huron County, using smartphones and peripherals to make similar changes they were seeing in clinical populations.

This new funding from The Public Health Agency will help them take their learnings and scale it up across the country. Seven sites have been identified with a focus placed on hard-to-reach populations; rural/remote areas, vulnerable populations, aboriginal populations, and new immigrants. They will also be working with family health teams and providers, as well as community service organizations to deliver the program wherever people want it.

At the end of the three-year project, Dr. Petrella hopes to see an impact at the population level. “My research has always been grounded in exercise-based intervention, so in three years, I hope we will have taken a very large step toward having a very useable process for patients to be more active, and to improve their health, either on their own or with their health-care provider," he said. "I want to ensure we have a range of menu options for any patient or person to be more active and more fit.”  

And while the work has been focused on those living with diabetes, Dr. Petrella believes that there are many people with other chronic conditions that can benefit from exercise. He is interested in investigating new disease areas where there could be a benefit from exercise. “One area I’m very keen in investigating is cognitive health and memory, and how your brain functions, and the health of your brain so that we can devise exercise interventions that improve that in those who are showing some changes, in order that we may be able to reverse those changes.”