University of South Carolina

Transforming medical education with exercise

By Melanie Lux,, 803-331-4794

Jennifer Trilk is fit. She cycles, runs, strength trains and even rides horses. When she’s in her office at USC’s School of Medicine Greenville, she develops teaching materials and writes papers while walking on her custom-built treadmill desk. 

A clinical assistant professor in physiology and exercise science, Trilk is a woman in motion and for good reason. 

She and her Harvard University School of Medicine colleague, Dr. Edward Phillips, are spearheading a national effort to make lifestyle medicine a formal part of U.S. medical school curricula, hosting an invitational Think Tank in Greenville supported by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation. Trilk and Think Tank participants will begin formulating a strategy for transforming U.S. medical education and ultimately world health. 

What attracted you to the field of physiology and exercise science?

It was a very circuitous route, but I have always had a passion for exercise and fitness. I was a personal trainer for years. So I decided to go back to school in 2004 and earned a doctorate in exercise science from the University of Georgia. It was important to me to apply exercise physiology to community health, so I then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Arnold School of Public Health at USC. My dream was to teach and perform research at a medical school, with a clear focus on using exercise to improve health and wellness in clinical populations. 

Tell us about your first teaching job.

I was very fortunate to be hired as a founding member of the biomedical sciences faculty at USC School of Medicine Greenville. Dean Jerry Youkey gave me a dream assignment: incorporate exercise science across our entire curriculum. It’s a groundbreaking approach; we literally link exercise physiology to every disease process so that our students understand the role exercise plays in disease prevention and management. We are the first medical school in the nation to do this as a required curriculum across all four years. 

What exactly is exercise physiology?

Exercise physiology is the study of the body’s acute response and chronic adaptations to exercise. My particular interest is to study the effects of exercise on prevention and treatment of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and cancers. 

Why is exercise physiology so important for your students?

Our poor lifestyle choices are literally killing us. By 2020, the World Health Organization predicts that two-thirds of all disease worldwide will be the result of lifestyle choices such as eating unhealthy foods, not exercising, using tobacco and alcohol. If people would make better choices, they could avoid or control diabetes, heart disease, obesity and stroke. 

Medical students have the opportunity to be powerful change agents as eventual physicians. First, we have to teach them to “walk the talk,” and that means encouraging them to make positive personal lifestyle choices along with giving them the tools to educate and empower their future patients. 

How do you engage students in your cause?

First, I let them know from the opening day of orientation that we are a school that believes in the power of lifestyle medicine. Because of this, USC School of Medicine Greenville teaches lifestyle medicine as a required curriculum of which they will be engaged. Second, our faculty literally get outside of the classroom with the students to show them that we practice what we preach. We have faculty who help me lead a running group with our students and faculty who cycle with students.  I am very thankful for the faculty who take time out of their busy schedules to support our students and myself in this cause. Finally, the medical students who come to our school are now familiar with our lifestyle medicine curriculum and are themselves interested in health, wellness and helping people. 

How do you motivate students who’ve never exercised before?

I make it a social activity. The running and cycling clubs are a great way to de-stress, laugh, talk and get a workout in. And we’re always up for a little friendly competition between the classes with impromptu soccer matches. This year, I also am engaging some of the members and businesses of Greenville to help get the students out into the community. 

What do you love most about teaching?

Our health care system is in the midst of an incredible upheaval and there is a hunger for new ideas and approaches. At the medical school, we are preparing our students to embrace change and their role as change agents. It’s so rewarding to be able to use my passion, exercise physiology, as one of the tools they’ll need to change the course of medicine and public health. 

What do you do when you’re not in the classroom?

Probably trying to get in a good workout or a ride on my horse. 

How would you like your students to remember you?

As someone who believed in and lived everything she taught.

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Posted: 09/08/13 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 09/08/13 @ 9:52 PM | Permalink