Researcher called pioneer of fitness

By Jeff Hansel

If they’re right, their research could revolutionize the way our streets and sidewalks look, the way our students learn and the way we work.

Dr. James Levine leads a growing corps of Mayo Clinic researchers seeking the Holy Grail of human health: how to help people stay lean.

"I think he really is a pioneer in this area, and he’s got a lot of qualities that some of the early pioneers in science must have had," said Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, a senior research fellow who focuses on pediatric obesity and nutrition.


Levine’s group is funded by big names, including NASA, Honeywell, the state of Minnesota, Mayo’s Kogod Program on Aging and the National Institutes of Health.

Study coordinator Gabe Koepp said his goal is to help Levine revolutionize work areas "to increase the average American’s caloric output." In other words, they want to help everyone burn a few more calories each day to get leaner. Levine is "relentless in the pursuit for a solution, and his enthusiasm is contagious," Koepp says.

Catherine Kotz, a University of Minnesota professor studying brain energy regulation, said she has laughed when Levine comes up with new ideas, "and I hope he has never been offended by it."

"He wanted to ask me about studying zebra fish, and I didn’t think he was serious. But he was. They have a very simple nervous system," she said.

But Levine isn’t all science. The first time they collaborated, she needed to borrow some equipment. Levine said to meet him at a building.

"I went into this place, and here are all these people with masks, and (they’re) fencing. I didn’t know which one was Jim Levine. I eventually saw someone motioning at me — and that was Jim Levine," Kotz said.

Most people want to be healthier, Kotz said, but finding the time to exercise is hard.

"The idea of fitting in exercise every day while they are actually working, I think they would love it," she said.


"The key with any new idea is to have an open mind and share it with others," said Shelly McCrady, senior Mayo research technologist in Levine’s lab. That’s how the team reacts when Levine comes up with something new, she said.

"We ask each other a series of questions: Is it possible to study this, what resources do we have, is the timeline realistic, etc. Jim has a way of making the impossible possible."

Levine, she said, is a personable fellow.

"He is known for his ‘special underwear’ suits that measure NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or the burning of calories through daily activities)," McCrady said. "During a research presentation, Jim may remove his suit and tie to show his ‘special underwear’ so that his research is more understandable and real to his audience. … When presenting our studies to younger children, he played Dance Dance Revolution with the kids." Someone might consider him just good-natured.

"To me, he is changing one child’s physical activity for a moment … a moment that might make a change for a lifetime," she said.

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