A group photo of 9 people
The lab group of UFRN kinesiologist Daniel Machado, Ph.D. (right, standing). Edmund Acevedo, Ph.D., professor in VCU’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, (left, standing) collaborated with Machado as a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil to examine what predicts the likelihood a person will continue to participate in physical activity. (Contributed photo)

If you break your promise to exercise, a VCU researcher is exploring why

As a Fulbright Scholar who recently returned from Brazil, Edmund Acevedo expands his work on psychobiology and physical activity.

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Edmund Acevedo hopes to clear up an age-old question: Why do people vow to start an exercise routine but rarely follow through?

“I’ve been interested in the role the brain plays in motivating a person to do physical activity and helping them adhere to a physical activity program,” said Acevedo, Ph.D., professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “I have also always been interested in trying to understand how individuals like athletes or first responders push themselves beyond their limits, performing superhuman physical tasks under high-risk situations.”

For nearly 35 years, Acevedo has been researching psychobiology and physical activity – specifically, how the brain and body are connected, and how people experience that connection during physical activity.

Last year, he was selected as a 2023-24 Fulbright Scholar through the State Department program that promotes intercultural exchange. The award gave him the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) in Natal, Brazil, on two research topics.

“Physical activity is critically important to physical and mental health, but many people don’t exercise,” Acevedo said, noting that 27.5% of adults worldwide are inactive, with 25% in the U.S. and 40.6% in Latin American countries. “I wanted to see what can be done to enhance physical activity participation.”

Starting this past August, he spent more than four months in Brazil. On his first project, he worked with  professor Hassan Elsangedy, Ph.D., in UFRN’s Department of Physical Education to explore decision-making that can regulate many behaviors.

“People have goals for physical activity, but for whatever reason, following through is very challenging,” Acevedo said. “What is it about setting a goal in terms of physical activity that is ineffective? How can we change? We developed strategies to address the meaningfulness of these goals.”

He illustrates the concept using a video of an older gentleman. The man is lifting weights in his garage, using a poor technique but nevertheless making the effort. The video jumps forward to show the man nicely dressed with his family – and with the strength to pick up his granddaughter so she can put an angel on top of a Christmas tree.

A photo of a man with a black headrap and a wire coming out of it.
A subject in the lab of UFRN kinesiologist Daniel Machado, Ph.D., undergoes brain stimulation. (Contributed photo)

“He was motivated to accomplish this task,” Acevedo said. “That is his ‘meaningful why.’ It’s not just I am going to exercise. That is not very effective. We want to examine the meaningful why’s. Can we alter our motivation to make it meaningful for us?”

Elsangedy has been researching the science of behavior change to increase the level of physical activity and reduce sedentary behavior in physically inactive people for several years.

“In just 3 months, more than 50% of people who start exercising at a gym give up. Looking for an enjoyable physical activity is essential to changing this scenario,” he said.

Working with Acevedo on the project was an enriching experience, he said.

“I believe that Dr. Acevedo brings to the team not only technical knowledge and expertise but also a genuine commitment to contributing to the development and academic training of students, as well as a broad and up-to-date view of trends and challenges in the field of research,” Elsangedy said. “Dr. Acevedo's presence added invaluable value to the project and the research group as a whole, being an inspiring example for everyone involved.”

On his second project, Acevedo collaborated with UFRN kinesiologist Daniel Machado, Ph.D., on the topic of making behavioral changes, examining what predicts the likelihood a person would continue to participate in physical activity.

“If you had a positive affective response to exercise, you will participate again. If it was negative experience, you won’t. The response is implicit, automatic and impulsive. It’s hard to change,” Acevedo said.

He and Machado explored tDCS – transcranial direct current stimulation – a safe, noninvasive technique that sends an electrical current to the brain. Machado has been working with tDCS in exercise/sport science for a decade, and Acevedo recently finished two projects at VCU using a similar brain stimulation technique.

“We wanted to see if we used it before physical activity to elevate a person’s emotional state during physical activity,” Acevedo said. “We have been using a brain stimulation technique to alleviate painful diabetic neuropathy. We knew from the literature that brain stimulation could alleviate some of this pain.”

The tDCS technique, which is approved for self-treatment in the United Kingdom and Brazil but not in the U.S., has shown signs of effectiveness.

“Some people seem to respond and others don’t,” Acevedo said. “Why is it that there are inconsistent results? We are trying to clear up the reliability issues. We are starting to collect data.”

Machado was intrigued by Acevedo’s proposal to investigate whether tDCS could improve exercise-related perception, particularly affective responses, during exercise in nonathletes.

“If successful, it could lay the groundwork for testing the effect of tDCS on affective responses during exercise and its effects on exercise adherence in real-world conditions,” Machado said.

He added that he embraced his research partnership with the VCU scholar, given Acevedo’s expertise in kinesiology and his pioneering work in studying affective responses during exercise.

“It was [also] the opportunity for me and my students to work with a senior researcher for a couple of months on such an interesting project,” Machado said. “The course that he organized here, his lectures at various times and the interactions with all of the students and professors were fantastic for everyone involved.”

During his time in Brazil, Acevedo and his colleagues held eight live/Zoom seminars that addressed research being conducted by eight labs at VCU, as well as psychobiology projects at UFRN.

“It was fantastic,” Acevedo said. “It was one of my favorite parts of the experience.”