Q&A: A New Era of Kinesiology


By Anna Katherine Clay

From gathering wearable sensor data for injury prevention to the health benefits of exer-gaming, new kinesiology leader Jay Hertel discusses the department’s innovative research and growth.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the new leader of UVA’s Kinesiology program, Jay Hertel, is also a UVA Kinesiology mainstay, having first come to UVA for his master's degree in 1994.

Hertel, the Joe H. Gieck Professor of Sports Medicine who holds academic appointments in the Department of Kinesiology and the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, also serves as co-director of the Exercise & Sport Injury Lab. Through these roles, including his background as an athletic trainer, Hertel has diverse and extensive experience in the fields of athletic training and sports medicine. In turn, his work and expertise mirrors the expansive growth of research and academic areas within the Kinesiology department at UVA, which also include exercise interventions, and chronic disease and the disabilities.

On September 25th, the National Academy of Kinesiology (NAK) announced the induction of Hertel as a fellow in their Class of 2020 New Fellows. As one of 13 new NAK Fellows, Hertel—who called the recognition by the thought leaders in Kinesiology nationally and internationally “humbling”—joins an elite group of scholars whose studies span the diversity of the kinesiology disciplines. 

Recently, the National Academy of Kinesiology released the results of their 2020 Rankings of Doctoral Programs in Kinesiology, and UVA advanced one spot amidst the top ten, from ninth on the list in 2015 to eighth.

“We have very talented students who are academically inclined and come from a variety of backgrounds,” Hertel said of the 275 undergraduate and 80 graduate students in the Kinesiology program, including the 16 doctoral students. “They go on to do a variety of things, from the exercise industry to healthcare. The influence that we can have by teaching and influencing them to then go into their varied careers, and that they can carry the message of the importance of physical activity and healthy lifestyles, that’s probably what I’m most proud of.”

As he leads Kinesiology into a new building space as well as continued excellence within the fields of academic and clinical research, studies and teachings, we talked to Hertel about what lies ahead. 

Q: First, you’ve been on the Kinesiology department faculty since 2004. What drew you to UVA specifically, both for your own education and then as a faculty member?

Hertel: As a young professional, I was advised by one of my mentors about the programs here at UVA in athletic training and sports medicine. I came here and earned my master’s, and I really got exposed to both the academic and the clinical sides of athletic training. 

While I was here, I had the opportunity to work with some great faculty members and outstanding clinicians, and to really see what the futures of athletic training and sports medicine were. I was inspired to further my education and pursue research and education as my career path within athletic training. 

Q: Why has athletic training been one of your particular areas of study and interest?

A: Athletic training is a unique healthcare discipline because the patients that you get to work with are highly motivated, and after they get injured, they need to return to the same activities which caused them to get hurt in the first place. That presents a unique challenge. But it also provides an opportunity to work with what is normally a highly motivated clientele. At the same point, there’s other aspects in terms of injury prevention and performance enhancement that are also equally important.  

Q: In your time here, how have you seen Kinesiology grow and evolve?

A: I would say three things. First, on the undergraduate major, the size has expanded, and the focus of the undergraduate major has really pushed toward being a pre-professional program for students aiming to pursue health professions. As we’ve seen, many health professions like physical therapy, athletic training and occupational therapy move to being graduate degrees as the entry level degree in those professions. Kinesiology has really become the go-to undergraduate major for a number of those human-movement related professions. 

Second, the research within the department has really taken a tilt toward exercise-based interventions in the treatment of medical conditions in orthopedic and muscular-skeletal based injuries and also in chronic disease issues, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, as well as in the area of exercise and physical activity interventions with people with conditions like autism.

Third, we also have had growth in our master’s programs as well – we have three master’s degree programs: master’s of science in athletic training, a professional program that trains students to become licensed athletic trainers; a master’s degree in exercise physiology and a master’s degree in Kinesiology for individuals with disabilities.

Q: What specific changes are happening with the Kinesiology department, particularly under your leadership? 

A: Probably the biggest thing happening with Kinesiology is that next year, we’ll be moving into the new Student Health and Wellness Center that’s being built on Brandon Avenue. We will have major facility upgrades in terms of our research labs that will allow us to have medical-grade research labs. That is fantastic, and it provides a lot of opportunity.

Q: Inside of these new facilities, what is your overall vision for the Kinesiology Department?

A: I want the Kinesiology department at UVA to be among the top Kinesiology departments at any public university that’s associated with an academic medical center. To do that, we have to continue to build on our focus on exercise interventions for improving health outcomes and also look at expanding who we are working with to provide those interventions. 

A really important area is the issue of disparities when it comes to access to physical activity, and the associated health outcomes. It’s really well-established that regular physical activity leads to improved health outcomes, but the reality is that there are oftentimes socioeconomic or other factors that influence access to physical activities facilities and environments, and that’s definitely an area we want to expand into – improving the science around physical activity disparities. We are addressing it in our course work, and we are currently searching for a faculty member to come and lead our work in that area. 

Q: What are the major challenges to reaching this vision, if any?

A: I think one of the challenges that we have is that many research programs in Kinesiology are built around in-person physical activity intervention. Being in Charlottesville, a large number of our studies have been reliant on this community and the surrounding counties to be our study population. One thing I’d like to see us do over the next several years is expand the scope of our research programs to be involved in more multi-center trials and be leading more multi-center trials, so we are demonstrating physical activity interventions across different types of communities. 

Q: In your own research and work, you’ve focused on how data from wearable sensors can aid athletes in injury prevention, recovery and overall safety. How have you seen wearable sensors enhance our overall understanding in this area?

A: My clinical background as an athletic trainer has always placed injury prevention and rehabilitation at the center of my research agenda. One thing we’ve observed over the past 5-10 years is the advent of wearable sensors in the process of load management with an athlete—looking at their amount of training load and how that might be related to human performance. As I came to understand that process more, I came to appreciate that the potential uses of that same technology when it came to injury prevention and rehabilitation were probably being under-utilized. I really wanted to make a push in that area, because there’s a large number of sporting organizations investing in this technology. And, at some level, I feel like they’re only getting half the value by limiting use to the human performance side, and not for injury presentation and rehabilitation.

Q: Are most of your research subjects at UVA, or in the Charlottesville community? Or both?

A: We actually have two prongs of our research. One is in collaboration with the UVA Athletic department, and they have been fantastic collaborators, specifically Mike Curtis, who is the strength and conditioning coach for the men’s basketball team, Peter Alston, who is the strength and conditioning coach for men’s and women’s soccer, and Kelli Pugh, the associate athletic director for sports medicine. 

Secondly, we have a line of research that is studying distance runners, and that research has been much more community based. We have done work with the UVA track and cross-country teams, but we’ve also done a fair amount of research on community members as well.

Q: How has your research and the department overall been impacted by COVID-19, particularly when research necessitates close physical proximity with a research subject?

A: It certainly has presented us with some challenges, especially our studies of exercise intervention in people with chronic disease. Many of these patients are older and at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. Some of our projects involving older adults have come to a standstill, largely because potential participants are unwilling to engage in research activities right now.

Having said that, we have also made adjustments and found ways to still carry out modified studies. For example, one of our faculty members, Joe Hart, is conducting an NIH-funded study looking at the use of exer-gaming (technology-driven physical activities)– using it as a means of rehabilitation for patients with knee osteoarthritis. In that case, they’ve been able to make adjustments to the study design to be more deliberate over telemedicine.

Q: Are there research areas that will continue to expand, regardless of the pandemic?

A: The research we’re doing in terms of exercise intervention for chronic disease will continue to expand. Traditionally, we’ve done a lot of work with Type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome. We have faculty doing exciting work related to patients with heart failure and Parkinson’s and other chronic diseases, so that’s definitely an area where we’ll have growth. I think the research we have in sports medicine related both to muscular-skeletal injury and concussion will continue to expand, too. A lot of exciting possibilities as we continue to grow.


Next, Ph.D. student Alex DeJong offers tips on avoiding running injuries during the pandemic.