In Memoriam: 'Godfather of Exercise' left his mark before he left us

A man whose name few knew outside of academic and research circles, but whose research literally made possible today's fitness industry, died July 9 following a battle with congestive heart disease. Ralph Seal Paffenbarger Jr. was an internationally known and honored exercise authority, professor emeritus of health research and policy at Stanford University School of Medicine, and the founder of the College Alumni Study, which he launched 47 years go. He was 84.
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A man whose name few knew outside of academic and research circles, but whose research literally made possible today's fitness industry, died July 9 following a battle with congestive heart disease. He was 84.

Ralph Seal Paffenbarger Jr. was an internationally known and honored exercise authority, professor emeritus of health research and policy at Stanford University School of Medicine, and the founder of the College Alumni Study, which he launched 47 years go.

That study was the first one to track large groups of people throughout their lives, asking in periodic questionnaires about the health, wellness, exercise habits, personal characteristics, illnesses and deaths of 50,000 alumni of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. He published hundreds of papers on the relationship between physical exercise and longevity and is perhaps best known for his studies showing that higher levels of physical fitness were associated with a lower risk of heart disease and a marked decrease in death rates.

Paffenbarger didn't just preach, he practiced. Soon after the first results started to roll in and show the benefit of exercise to longevity and health, he himself at age 45 in 1967 began to jog. But we aren't talking just a run around a few blocks. Ultimately, Paffenbarger completed more than 150 marathons and ultra-marathons, the first of which he did in boat shoes (the Boston Marathon, five months after he started to jog). In 1977, he was one of the first group of 12 men to start what later became the penultimate ultra-challenge, the Western States 100 Endurance Run from Squaw Valley over the mountains and canyons to the western foothills of the Sierra in California. He and another man were also the only three to finish it that year. Paffenbarger eventually ran the race five times. Today, the field is limited to about 400 and there is a lottery for entry with only about a 25 percent chance of gaining a race number.

SNEWS® View: SNEWS® editor Therese Iknoian had the opportunity to visit Paffenbarger, or "Paff" as he was known to his friends, a month before his death, revisiting a man she had come to know in the 1990s after doing a lengthy feature profile on him in 1993. Sure, there were studies before his, but none that had the depth and long-term nature of his and, therefore, could turn the tide of opinion that at that time still believed that strenuous exercise would steal from the total heart beats you were allotted in life. Despite his accomplishments and what his research has meant to the world and to several generations of epidemiologists after him, he remained quiet, unassuming and, always, a bit self-deprecating. When he discussed his life in a series of interviews with Iknoian in 1993, he called his collection of medals from races around the world "junk" and his athletic accomplishments "these silly things," and never really acknowledged the global impact he had on the world's acceptance of regular activity as a key to health.

If it weren't for Paff, there would be no Cooper, Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons. There would be no fitness industry like it is known today.

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