July 10, 2017

In 1983, while most people were “aerobicizing" in neon leg warmers, Dr. Ben Hurley arrived at UMD’s Department of Kinesiology with an interest in the physiological responses and health effects of strength training. “We lose muscle mass as we age, and if  we can reduce that loss, we can lower disease risks ,” Dr. Hurley said, summarizing his research findings. “Resistance training reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and  other chronic diseases.” 

Over the course of his more than three-decade career at Maryland, Dr. Hurley has thoroughly explored the health benefits of strength (resistance) training in relation to aging,  disease and  genetics. He established himself as one of the top researchers in the field of exercise physiology, creating a body of research that has been cited over 8,000 times, with two articles cited over 400 times each. Now, after 34 years, Dr. Hurley is retiring.

Dr. Hurley “made a major contribution to the field in terms of scientific research,” Department of Kinesiology Chair Brad Hatfield said. Dr. Hurley’s work was the first in a wave of research to bring in major NIH funding, ushering in “a whole new chapter for this department.” 

“Ben Hurley = strength training,” fellow kinesiology professor and longtime friend Jim Hagberg said. “Ben was one of the first people to start investigating the health benefits of strength training. When aerobics got popular, strength training fell off the map,” but Dr. Hurley stayed focused, with the relentless and organized dedication for which he is known.

Some of his research was conducted with Dr. Andy Goldberg at the Center for Research on Aging at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He also worked with the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging to show that those who do not regularly participate in resistance exercise experience a 12 percent loss of muscle strength every ten years, and a six percent loss of muscle mass during that time period. However, he and his colleagues found that it is possible to reverse three decades of loss within two months of resistance training. This is “essentially reversing the effects of aging on muscle structure and function,” he said.  He was slated to be on the TODAY show—but was bumped by breaking news—to talk about how athletes who use anabolic steroids have a tenfold increase in their risk of heart disease within a few weeks. His most cited study, “ Muscle triglyceride utilization during exercise: effect of training,” co-authored by Dr. Hagberg and others, examined  how the human body in a “trained” (fit) state preferentially uses fat in muscle rather than the fat stores found in adipose tissue. 

Another of his studies showed the importance of strength training on  glucose metabolism. Subjects had a 23 percent increase in glucose uptake after four months of training. This finding is significant because sluggish glucose uptake (known as insulin resistance) is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. 

“He is very reliable, honest, careful and a rigorous thinker, both in his science and his citizenship as a faculty member,” said Dr. Jane Clark, former SPH dean and a longtime colleague of Dr. Hurley’s. “He has a high degree of integrity. There’s no drama. He’s just a really good scientist.”

When Dr. Hurley was working towards tenure there was a strong push for publications, but not as much on obtaining external funding from research grants as there is now. Also, Dr. Hurley feels that teaching quality is emphasized more than it was in the early days of his time at UMD. He was clocking 90-hour work weeks and “the thing I remember most is that every week, I went to NIH and put quarters in the machine to copy journal articles. Even then, teaching was really important to me, but it was extremely challenging to find enough time to do it the level that I expected of myself.”

During his career, Dr. Hurley advised 24 Ph.D. and 18 master’s degree students. “That’s a lot,” Dr. Hagberg asserted. “Many have gone on to faculty positions; he has led them to good places.”

Dr. Colleen Farmer, the SPH assistant dean for undergraduate affairs, was one of Dr. Hurley’s doctoral students. “I adore Ben Hurley,” she said. “He has been a gift to public health, always able to relate well to students and share what he knows. He is helpful from an academic standpoint, he’s kind, he makes good recommendations. He is very respectful of students.”

“Here’s a guy who not only talks the talk, he walks the walk,” Dr. Farmer said. “He lives public health.”

Senior kinesiology lecturer Dr. Elizabeth Brown concurs. “Diet and exercise really define Ben. He practices what he preaches. He only will eat things that are green,” she joked. She said that Dr. Hurley often carried around a 5-pound blob of rubber to illustrate what five pounds of fat look and feel like. “He carried it around as a symbol, to make the point” that carrying extra weight is not healthy.

Dr. Hurley, who has family in Florida, plans to stay in Maryland. He hopes to “be involved in some way in helping people improve their health with proper eating and exercise.” 

One of his favorite things about his time at the SPH is “the colleagues I’ve had. We are fortunate to have cooperation, and so little dissension in the department.”

A member of the National Academy of Kinesiology and the American College of Sports Medicine, Dr. Hurley has been appointed to emeritus status. He will continue to teach one course in the fall: Kinesiology 461, Exercise and Body Composition. “It’s a nice contribution that he will continue to make,” Dr. Hatfield said, warning: “This guy is not an easy A.”

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