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Arnold School of Public Health


Diane Ehlers joins exercise science department, bringing research focus on physical activity’s benefits to aging adults and cancer survivors

October 9, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Diane Ehlers, whose research examines the effects of physical activity on quality of life in aging adults and cancer survivors, has joined the department of exercise science as an assistant professor. Ehlers’ arrival serves to further bolster an already well-established core of expertise in cancer within the exercise science department and other areas of the Arnold School.

Ehlers’ path first crossed with the field of exercise science when she was working toward bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She took a job as a lifeguard, where she also taught swimming lessons and water aerobics. Teaching water aerobics was a new experience for Ehlers. It piqued her interest in group fitness, and she worked as a group fitness instructor from then on—even holding a graduate assistantship with campus recreation.

While working professionally as the fitness coordinator at the University of Florida, Ehlers met her predoctoral mentor who encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. Ehlers completed her doctoral studies at Arizona State University where she earned a Ph.D. in physical activity, nutrition, and wellness followed by three years of postdoctoral training in the department of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Exercise was a hobby and teaching group fitness was a fun, extracurricular activity, so being able to have a career in this area and in a way that could really impact individuals’ quality of life, is really exciting and fulfilling,” says Ehlers.

Through her doctoral program and postdoctoral training, Ehlers developed an interest in studying physical activity as a treatment for cognitive impairments in individuals diagnosed with cancer. With funding from the American Cancer Society, she studied the effects of physical activity on cognitive function in a national sample of breast cancer survivors during her postdoctoral fellowship.

“Because cancer is often diagnosed in older adulthood, cancer survivors are at a sort-of double jeopardy relative to their cognitive function. In other words, they may be facing the intersection of age-related cognitive decline and cancer-related cognitive decline,” explains Ehlers, who has published 25 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters. “Unfortunately, this can have significant impacts on cancer survivors’ daily functioning and overall quality of life both short and long term. I hope to determine if, how, and at what point along the cancer care continuum physical activity most benefits cognitive function in cancer survivors.”

She decided to join the University of South Carolina based on the Arnold School’s dedication to helping faculty successfully carry out their research and achieve excellence in teaching. “I was struck by the level of support given to faculty for their research and teaching, the rich research environment, and the other faculty—in exercise science, the Arnold School and across campus—with whom I may have the opportunity to work,” Ehlers says. “And, you know, the people here are just nice—they’re personable, collegial, and supportive. It really just feels like such a positive place to live and work.”

“The department of exercise science was extremely fortunate to add Diane as a faculty member this year” says chair James Carson. “It was clear to our search committee that she had a rare combination of exceptional research training that was coupled with a true passion for understanding physical activity’s impact on health outcomes. We have found that her outstanding combination of training and interest can lead to great success at the University of South Carolina and are thrilled that she joined our faculty.”

Ehlers is in the planning stages for her first study at UofSC and is looking forward to working with students who are also passionate about this research. She is also looking forward to teaching courses in exercise science, including those on the psychology of physical activity, exercise oncology, and exercise and the brain, all of which will overlap with her research interests in cancer and cognition.