It is readily apparent that Jill Kanaley possesses a relentless curiosity. She is driven from one set of questions to the next, as if each discrete constellation of ideas is merely one side of a Venn diagram and that, once she’s seen the overlapping section, she is instinctively drawn to find the second circle.
A professor and interim chair of the University of Missouri-Colombia’s Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, Kanaley actually got her start by prepping to become a lifeguard.
Early life, and an introduction to exercise science
A little backstory: the family having recently moved to the outskirts of Toronto when Kanaley was 10 or so, her mother enrolled her in swimming lessons to give her a social outlet and, ultimately, just something to do. Kanaley’s parents were active people, and they had a certain philosophy about how one should spend one’s days: Kanaley quips, “Well, it’s eight o’clock. Everybody needs to be out of the house and doing something.”
(“Doing something” also included basketball and volleyball, the latter of which Kanaley would go on to pursue in her collegiate years.)
But it so transpired that Kanaley was a good swimmer, and she eventually enrolled in Canada’s National Lifeguard program. One of the requirements was a course that studied the heart, particularly how swimming affected the organ and what to do if someone had a heart attack while swimming.
“It was going into the whole physiology of it,” Kanaley says. “And I can remember reading it and just going, ‘This is pretty cool.’”
When the time came, Kanaley enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Swimming and basketball went by the wayside, but volleyball remained. At the same time, she decided to major in physical education. By fortunate happenstance, Queen’s structured its phys ed program the way universities tend to design exercise science tracks today:
“You also got a second degree with it,” she says. “And my second degree was biology.”
Next came a master’s program in exercise physiology from the University of Illinois and a doctoral program in exercise physiology at the same institution. At this point Kanaley is looking for a research direction, and she finds it:
“There was a student ahead of me who was doing work in endocrinology,” she says. “And I was taking classes, and metabolism and endocrinology just started to fascinate me.”
After completing her Ph.D. in 1989, Kanaley took on a postdoctoral fellowship at the Mayo Clinic, specifically as a senior research fellow in Mayo’s Endocrine Research Unit. She explored preventative and mitigating measures for diabetes, as well as more pure research into the disease. (Here too began her work studying weight loss and obesity.) She left Mayo in 1992 for another postdoc at the University of Virginia’s Department of Internal Medicine.
“When I was at UVA, I did more hormonal work — frequent sampling of growth hormone, looking at the patterns,” she says.
As professor and researcher
Ultimately, though, Kanaley would spend most of her career at two institutions: Syracuse University and the University of Missouri-Colombia — with intermittent sojourns to appointments and fellowships as far afield as Denmark and Australia. At Syracuse she was variously an assistant professor, associate professor, professor, interim chair of the Department of Exercise Science, and director of the Human Performance Lab. At Missouri, where she is still based, she has been a professor, associate department chair of the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, department director of graduate studies, HES associate dean of research and graduate studies, and interim chair of nutrition and exercise physiology.
During this time she was busy not only with research and teaching — she’s produced more than 140 peer-reviewed papers — but also serving ACSM. Kanaley got her start as the president of the Mid Atlantic chapter and has been a member of the Board of Trustees, the Annual Meeting Program Committee and the Science Integration and Leadership Committee. She also took the lead on the 2022 ACSM position paper “Exercise/physical activity in individuals with Type 2 diabetes.”
Kanaley has covered a lot of research bases, and our conversation is consequently wide-ranging. As we talk, we alight upon the topic of scheduling exercise at particular times in order to affect glucose levels throughout the night. If effective, such scheduling would have been an intervention for diabetics, whose blood glucose tends to rise overnight. The results, however, complicated matters.
“You know, we were trying to get a mechanism,” Kanaley says. “We thought we knew we could manipulate endogenous glucose production through the night by exercising at night, and we failed to do that.”
This unexpected finding dovetails well with a topic we cover later on in our conversation. I ask Kanaley which study results have most surprised her over the years. She replies that she’d have to go over her work and think about it. But then she offers that the studies that negate the initial hypothesis particularly intrigue her. It’s mere supposition on my part, but it seems to me that strong results upending an assumption, dogma or world view are particularly tantalizing to her.
While working on the exercise timing vis-à-vis nocturnal glucose study, Kanaley and her team also observed that though the literature suggested diabetics’ glucose levels would rise beginning at about 3 a.m., their subjects’ levels began their upward march much earlier, sometimes as soon as 10 p.m.
This work led to other questions. Because Kanaley and her students were monitoring their participants overnight, the researchers themselves began to suffer from lack of sleep.
“I would meet with my team of students, and every one of us was exhausted because some weeks we had spent four nights in a row up. We were all sitting there going, ‘I’m not even working out. Like, I can’t. I can barely move.’ That’s when one of the students says, ‘I want to start looking at sleep.’”
We jump ahead in time: On the books right now is a grant proposal studying insulin resistance after loss of sleep.
“We have no idea what the mechanism is,” Kanaley says. “We have no idea what system, what tissue is responding.” Later she says, “People have been studying sleep pretty in depth for 20 plus years, and there’s probably less than five studies that have even made an attempt to go after a mechanism.”
The sleep work has led her down a number of interesting roads, among them attending her first sleep conference, during which she noted that the effects of lack of sleep the panelists discussed were essentially the same as those experienced by people who don’t get enough exercise.
“You know — hypertension, insulin resistance. You name any condition you could. I said, ‘Oh. My. Gosh. It's like they did search and replace on this.’ And yet, when they would talk about people that were poor sleepers, I’d say, ‘Do you ever exercise them all?’ ‘It never dawned on us.’ But we’re just as guilty. We don’t ask sleep questions, right? But that's where I’m going: How do they come together?”
I ask if there’s a question she’s been chasing down her whole career. She avers that it’s how to get people to stick with exercise. And once again, the most interesting result she’s had in that arena was one she hadn’t expected.
“We had one study that — I think we were pretty successful. We had a pretty good model. In fact, I’ve been debating if that should be my last study that I do before I retire, to go back and look at the model we used and see if we can we duplicate what we did.” She continues, “We were looking at the effect of 16 weeks of exercise training, and we somehow in there developed this great training program. Pretty much everybody stuck to it.
“And what was amazing was after 16 weeks we did our end testing and we let them go, how many came back to us for six months later and said, ‘Look how much weight I’ve lost.’”
It seems there is a circle to complete.
“That’s what we need to do again,” she says. “Figure out what we did the first time.”
“Dr. Kanaley is a great example of an academic and research ‘triple threat’ as she is an outstanding scientist, educator and mentor, and a dedicated professional who serves her academic institution, professional organizations including ACSM, and the professional community in general.”
- Citation Award nominator Bo Fernhall, Ph.D., FACSM