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Neha Gothe

A Few Minutes With Neha Gothe

Vince Lara in the communications department of the College of Applied Health Sciences spends a few minutes with Kinesiology and Community Health assistant professor Neha Gothe to discuss her research on the benefits of physical activity to improve health and her new STAY Fit study that examines the benefits of exercise on the cognitive health of cancer survivors.

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VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today, I spend a few minutes with Neha Gothe, assistant professor in Kinesiology and Community Health at AHS, to talk about her research on the benefits of physical activity to improve health. What's the inspiration for your research? Why did you decide to do what you're doing?

NEHA GOTHE: So I am originally from Mumbai, India. And I grew up around people who always had an active lifestyle. I played a lot of sport growing up as a child. I was surrounded with friends, family kids, cousins, sisters, who also engaged in as much physical activity growing up. And my parents were very supportive of this interest in sport and athletics. I pursued psychology as my major. And the interest in exercise science and exercise psychology just grew very organically. So it wasn't something that was predetermined. It just so happened that I was passionate about exercise and sport. And having majored in psychology, I just wanted to bring those two together and try to study the field of exercise science so I ventured into this area of study.

VINCE LARA: You studied psychology where? In the states or in India?

NEHA GOTHE: This was back home, yes. So I did my undergraduate studies in psychology and I also followed that up with a master's degree in counseling psychology. And all this while I was still active. I played athletics. I played tennis for my college and my university. So I was always passionate about trying to bring sport and exercise together with psychology. And understanding how-- it was not just about improving performance in the athletic aspect, but also in terms of how being active helped you mentally and psychologically to stay healthy. And that kind of sparked the passion for me to pursue opportunities that looked at this field in or outside India.

VINCE LARA: Speaking of in or outside India. Why Illinois of all the universities and all the places?

NEHA GOTHE: Yeah. Illinois has really become a home away from home for me. This is really the place I came to for my graduate school. So following up with my master's degree, I was looking for opportunities in exercise science and exercise psychology. And I started looking up online what programs that offered, which universities offer those. Unfortunately, in India the field of exercise science or kinesiology is still very nascent. There aren't very many universities that offer a degree or a higher education in that area of study. And so I decided to look abroad and one of the first labs that showed up was in fact a lab here at the University of Illinois. This program, when I did more research, is among the top programs for kinesiology in the country. And it just made sense for me to give it a shot. And I applied and I came here for my graduate school. And I'm lucky to be back here now in the capacity of faculty. So it does really feel like a home away from home for me.

VINCE LARA: Did you know much about Illinois at all? Like the state and then the university?

NEHA GOTHE: Not really I just did as much research as I could and most of it was online or from having heard from friends or family who had visited the United States. I come from Bombay so it's kind of-- it's a big city. It's millions of people. It's kind of an equivalent to New York. And when I first came here, I was definitely taken by surprise to see this little campus town. But I really come to like it. I enjoy being in this kind of an environment. And, of course, when I miss the city life, I do make a trip to Chicago or one of the cities that are in town. But I've really come to like being in the Midwest and being among cornfields.

VINCE LARA: Pivoting to your research, so your agenda is focused on clinical trials to promote physical activity to improve health. But you look at some nontraditional modes, such as yoga. I wonder why you chose those methods?

NEHA GOTHE: Yeah, most of the people I knew growing up and even to date, and most of this is back home in India, nobody really had a membership to a gym. Most people who wanted to be active or exercise would do it by themselves. And a lot of times it was yoga because yoga is very ingrained in the Indian educational system in the form of physical education in schools. I grew up doing yoga in schools. That was part of our daily physical activity and physical education.

And so for me, it was quite a shift when I came to the United States to see that people here, in order to become active and exercise regularly, seek out specific gyms or facilities to pursue that. And oftentimes these facilities have or offer the very traditional forms of exercise. So it would be you have machines that you go and run on the treadmill. Or they have machines to lift weights. So it seems to be something that is quite different from what I grew up as a child and as an adult. And so I wanted to test the effectiveness of these unique therapies as well, which are definitely becoming more and more popular in the west. I have seen more and more classes that are offered which look at yoga or mindfulness or Tai Chi or martial arts.

And I was definitely interested in looking at these non-traditional modes because I know that there is some benefit to doing an activity that is not just moving your body but also exercising your mind. So yoga is kind of a holistic practice it's not just physical exercise but it's also mental exercise. It's your time out for the day when you are practicing you are focused on the instructor who is leading the yoga class. And so I was always intrigued by what other benefits can this type of an activity offer over and above the traditional activities such as walking, or jogging, or lifting weights. And so that is really what sparked my interest in testing these non-traditional, mind body therapies. And comparing them and contrasting them against the traditional forms like walking or spring cleaning. Of course, it's not to say that yoga is the best but what I'm really interested in is trying to test whether it is just as good as walking. If it's just as good as spring cleaning. Or perhaps it has something more to offer.

VINCE LARA: You just talked about some of the traditional methods. You are looking at those in connection with the cognitive benefits of exercise in cancer survivors. So can you talk a little bit about what you're trying to determine when you look at those?

NEHA GOTHE: Yeah, so like I said with these mind body therapies that is definitely the mind that is involved and by that it's looking at the brain and brain health and brain function. So as I was reading more about it, we know that with cognitive aging as people get older we do tend to lose some of our cognitive sharpness. We do have problems with memory, attention, problem solving, and that's just the normal course of aging. But if you look at specific populations such as cancer survivors. In addition to the pain, fatigue, emotional distress, that is accompanying the disease. And is often the common side effects and very widely studied and researched side effects that is growing attention to look at these mental deficits that often are reported by cancer survivors.

They are collectively termed as cancer related cognitive impairments. They're very understudied. We don't really know exactly what causes them. Why some patients experience them and some don't. But the statistics show that as high as 75% of cancer patients, especially the ones who receive chemotherapy, tend to report these symptoms. And they are reported during treatment and they often last long after treatment is complete.

So some of the patients who are survivors may actually be living with these symptoms for a long, long time. So I was interested in trying to bring exercise into this picture. And to test whether exercising can help introduction of these impairments that are reported. And we know that exercise can help in improving memory attention cognitive processing for aging, for older adults. So can we apply the same model for specific populations such as cancer survivors who perhaps could benefit more as they're going through the treatment and through the disease process.

VINCE LARA: Now you have another study coming up. "The Stay Fit" study is what it's called. And it starts November 20--

NEHA GOTHE: January 27th.

VINCE LARA: Oh, January 27th is when it starts. OK, so you have that. What do you plan on studying next? I mean, assuming that no research line ever closes, obviously, but what do you hope to study next?

NEHA GOTHE: Yeah I would definitely like to extend the project with cancer survivors. I've have gotten some really great feedback from our projects. We have had about 51 participants who have completed the studies so far. And for January we have another 20 to 25 participants who are in the works. A lot of them have asked for something more sustainable over time. They are willing to sign up for these research studies which are very structured. Our project is about well weeks. But they often report at the end of the project that once the study ends, they are going to go back to their normal, usual, inactive lifestyles. And they are interested in how I could help them to keep up active lifestyles. And how I could help them keep up they're physically active routine even after a structured study ends.

So I'm trying to look into projects that could perhaps look at exercise maintenance over time. And how those projects could be designed creatively so we as a research lab can offer kind of evidence based black farm to design and help the participants to a minimal degree as possible. And really empower them to make the decisions and incorporate physically active lifestyle into their day to day activities. So that is one of the projects I'm looking forward to.

Another study that is currently under review with the NIH, is looking at a long term yoga intervention for aging adults. So it's kind of looking at that aspect about cognitive aging. And it includes some MRI outcomes. So looking at some objective magnetic resonance imaging based brain volume, brain matter, outcomes. To see whether yoga as compared with aerobic exercise could perhaps have unique effects on the brain. And this is in collaboration with the Beckman Institute on campus. And I'll hear about that from the NIH sometime next month. So if that works the way it's planned, that will be one of our next projects here and the exercise psychology lab.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Neha Gothe. This has been "A Few Minutes With."

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