Students to present research on health benefits of yoga at Research in the Rotunda

Brooke Kunkel and Monica Radtke examine the results of a DEXA scan.
Brooke Kunkel and Monica Radtke examine the results of a DEXA scan.
Ann Larson prepares a subject for a DEXA scan.
Ann Larson prepares a subject for a DEXA scan.
Brooke Kunkel, Monica Radtke, and Ann Larson demonstrate a sit-and-reach test which they used to assess flexibility in their study participants.
Brooke Kunkel, Monica Radtke, and Ann Larson demonstrate a sit-and-reach test which they used to assess flexibility in their study participants.
Monica Radtke, Brooke Kunkel, Ann Larson, and Professor Cowley reminisce about their yoga study.
Monica Radtke, Brooke Kunkel, Ann Larson, and Professor Cowley reminisce about their yoga study.

University of Wisconsin-Platteville health and human performance students Brooke Kunkel, Ann Larson and Monica Radtke will present their research on the health benefits of yoga at the 17th annual Research in the Rotunda on Wednesday, March 11, at the Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin.

More than 120 students across the UW System were selected to present their undergraduate research at the event, which provides an opportunity for Wisconsin students and their faculty advisors to share their research findings with legislators, state leaders, UW alumni and other supporters. Seventeen UW-Platteville students and their advisors will present their research at the event.

Kunkel, a junior from Kieler, Wisconsin; Larson, a senior from Cumberland, Wisconsin; and Radtke, a junior from Edgerton, Wisconsin; were mentored by Dr. Jeff Cowley, assistant professor of health and human performance at UW-Platteville, who provided guidance, instruction and feedback that helped them facilitate all aspects of the research study.

The goal of the project was to determine how effective yoga exercises are for improving health in sedentary adults.

Overview of research study

In April, Kunkel, Larson and Radtke planned their research study and obtained approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board. In May, through social media and other communications, they recruited 19 adults from the community who were getting very little physical activity as subjects for the study.

In June, student researchers conducted a series of pretests on each participant, which took about one hour per person. First, they measured the adults’ body composition using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA, which uses low energy X-ray beams to measure bone density, lean tissue mass and fat mass. Second, they measured the adults’ flexibility and balance using a set of tests, including walking speed, single-leg balance time and sit-and-reach tests.

Pretest data they collected revealed that many participants were overweight, with an average body mass index, or BMI, of 33.2, and several did not meet baseline standards for flexibility and balance.

Following, students led the adults through an eight-week, two days per week, 60-minute yoga class. Yoga activities included Hatha-inspired yoga techniques, progressing from fundamental relaxation and flexibility techniques to sequences of integrated poses. After all of the classes were completed, students conducted posttests on each individual – the same set of measurements as the pretests – and analyzed the results.

Results, impact of research study

Cowley and student researchers noted that results of the study revealed significant improvements in lean body mass and balance time. While most participants did not lose weight, they gained an average of nearly three pounds of muscle mass. In addition, nearly all participants increased their single-leg balance time, an indication that their postural control improved. While not a significant finding, many participants also saw large improvements in shoulder flexibility. These changes were often largest in the subjects who started off with very poor test results.

“The results were encouraging, as they showed that doing even a little bit of exercise can provide rapid improvements when people have been inactive,” said Cowley.

The student researchers enjoyed different aspects of the research study.

“I loved working with a variety of people and seeing their progress throughout the eight weeks,” said Kunkel. “It was interesting that they gained body fat, along with lean mass. I thought most of the subjects would actually lose weight.”

“I enjoyed analyzing the data to see if there were significant differences along with seeing the improvement that of each participant,” said Larson. “It was interesting that there was a difference in lean mass.”

In November, Kunkel, Larson and Radtke presented the results of their research at the American College of Sports Medicine-Midwest Chapter annual meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois. “The best part of this conference was gaining professional knowledge and being in a professional setting,” said Kunkel.

The students were very excited about having the opportunity to present their research at Research in the Rotunda.

“I think it will be a great experience,” said Kunkel. “The study went well and I want to share my research to those who are interested in the topic.”

“I am very excited to present at Research in the Rotunda because it is a unique experience that not everyone gets to have,” said Larson. “It will be nice to talk to state representatives face to face as well.”

Cowley said he was very impressed with how the students worked independently throughout the project, adding, “Brooke, Ann and Monica really drove this project. They did a great job recruiting participants and collecting data. They divided up the work amongst themselves nicely: one student collected body composition data, another administered the balance tests, and a third taught the yoga class. They also did an excellent job writing the IRB approval document, recruitment materials, and abstracts and creating presentation materials.”

Kunkel, Larson and Radtke are confident that the research experience helped them prepare for their future careers.

“After I graduate from UW-Platteville, I would like to work in corporate wellness or cardiac rehabilitation,” said Kunkel. “In the health and human performance major, we work with the general public, and this project helped me get ready for the health field. There are a lot of different types of exercises out there and I want to make sure what exercises I'm telling my clients/patients actually work. With this research, I can confidently state that yoga can help sedentary adults with flexibility, balance, and body composition.”

“My career goal is to continue to do research throughout grad school and then work in a sports science research facility,” said Larson. “Undergraduate research helps me prepare for my future by getting some experience with conducting a research study before attending grad school and going on to a future job with research.”

“It is rewarding to see how the students have grown through the experience of designing and conducting this research,” said Cowley. “The opportunities to present the work have been big confidence-boosters, and it’s nice to see my students take pride in what they have accomplished. I think it is building momentum for them to do bigger things in the future.”