Five questions: FSU exercise physiologist works to help individuals achieve optimal performance

Ella Castle

Michael Ormsbee, a professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences Professor of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology Michael Ormsbee first became interested in how the body performs as a high school athlete, an interest that blossomed into a full-time career. As a professor and director of Florida State University’s […]

Michael Ormsbee, an associate professor in the College of Human Sciences’ Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences
Michael Ormsbee, a professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences

Professor of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology Michael Ormsbee first became interested in how the body performs as a high school athlete, an interest that blossomed into a full-time career.

As a professor and director of Florida State University’s Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine, or ISSM, he has worked with both individuals who are competing at the highest levels of athletic competition and those who are trying to improve their overall health.

He answered five questions about how he came to work in this field and his latest projects.

What first drew you to the field of exercise physiology and nutrition?

I grew up in an active household and played sports my entire life.  I began training as a young teen and was always competing at the President’s Physical Fitness Tests that were held annually in middle and high school. My older brother was the same way and began to read some of the old school muscle and fitness magazines for fun.  I was fortunate to then go on to college and play ice hockey. Around that time, I took an introduction to exercise physiology class as a freshman and had a professor that made me love the material and want to learn more. I was hooked.

How have your perspectives changed since you started working in the field? Or are there areas you are more interested in now as opposed to when you started?

My view has changed from a “me focused” approach to a more altruistic approach to asking research questions. I was at first, of course, interested in learning more about exercise and nutrition to improve my own personal performance on the ice or in the weight room. Later that morphed into a focus on how to help others achieve a high level of performance, be it for athletes to be bigger, faster and stronger or for the general population to be healthier, fit and happy. I suppose some of my interests shifted also to older populations as I got older too. In recent years, we have also become more focused on wearable technologies for sport, female physiology and sleep science. However, the underlying focus has always been to use nutrition and exercise to improve health, body composition and performance of any of the populations that we study.

You recently took over as director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine. What do you see as the role or mission of that institute going forward?

The vision I have for the institute is to make it the top authority in sport science, performance nutrition and sports medicine globally.  We have some great momentum nationally and some collaborations internationally, but there is a need to expand our reach. In this new role, I hope to more fully incorporate interested researchers and research programs from both athletics and from medicine. We have traction in both areas, but I will be looking to expand our collaborations and reach. Simultaneously, I hope to provide improved experiences for students to not only learn about the theory of exercise and nutrition science, but to put it into practice. We are now re-opening our successful community outreach program to allow pay-for-service testing so that the community can have an “athlete experience” and get data to improve their own health such as fitness level, lactate threshold, aerobic capacity, body fat and muscle mass, or simply run on our anti-gravity treadmill.

This growth mindset will help to, first, gain visibility on campus and in our community and also open up research collaboration opportunities that did not exist before.

In addition to your work looking at how elite athletes can achieve optimal performance, you also are working on a project about how some of these principles can be applied to individuals struggling with health issues such as obesity and potentially Type 2 diabetes. Can you talk a little bit about how these different types of projects intersect or how one might help inform the other?

Yes, I have been fortunate to work with athletes, the general population and clinical populations. While these may sound like completely different research areas, they all fit under our primary umbrella of human performance nutrition research. For me, I think improving performance is equally impressive whether it is to simply take a few more steps, to be able to climb a flight of stairs, to improve body composition or translate it into actual on-field performance changes. Performance should not be limited to athletes; we all need to perform in life and at work. So, while our populations vary, our end goal is usually quite similar.

Currently we are working on projects with FSU athletes, firefighters, obese and diabetic individuals, and active older adults. What fascinates me constantly is the cross-talk between traditional medicine and sports nutrition. For example, there are a number of instances where a sports nutrition product is now used in clinical populations and vice versa. To give one example, creatine supplementation began in athletes but is now used in a plethora of clinical conditions with success. Likewise, there are modified starches that were developed for a clinical condition called glycogen storage disease that are now used by athletes.

The beauty of our work is that it is highly engaging for the scientist and is translatable for the physician, athlete or coach.

Where do you see your research going forward? Do you have any specific plans for ISSM or your personal research agenda that you’d like to share?

I am beginning to meet with other top research facilities and directors of other institutes that are similar to ours to understand what works and what does not. That will ultimately translate into an updated mission, increased collaboration with highly funded institutes or centers and improved recognition worldwide. I’m excited to bring in new faculty to the institute (we are currently hiring an assistant professor of sports nutrition) and creating more internal and external affiliates to focus on areas such as female physiology, warfighter/first responder resilience, sleep medicine, elite athletics and sports medicine.

For anyone interested in participating in a study Ormsbee and Professor Robert Hickner are conducting on Type 2 diabetes and postmenopausal women, please email [email protected] or call (850) 645-1234.

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