When you speak with Jorge Franchella, your main takeaway is his enthusiasm — enthusiasm for his work, for the conversation you’re having, for ACSM, for life in general. He has a vivacity about him, a joie de vivre that is infectious.
The Argentine physician is likewise loquacious, and my job as an interviewer becomes fairly simple. I need only ask a few clarifying questions; the rest of the time, despite the fact that English is his second language, he leads me on the journey of his education, career, and work with ACSM as if we are on a long walk together, the narrative flowing together simply and naturally, and pertinent events appearing as interesting sights along the way.
Destined to be a physician
Jorge Franchella, M.D., FACSM, specializes in sports medicine and exercise physiology, and he is also a cardiologist. Cardiology is in fact where he got his start. No surprise — his father was a cardiologist and his mother was a nurse. Sometimes the elder Franchella would bring home EKGs and ask the then-six-year-old Jorge to describe them. By the time Franchella was 15, his father was working on what would become a seminal Spanish-language cardiology text, and the teenager assisted by sketching initial drafts of some of the book’s illustrations.
“I think that nobody, including me, had any doubt that I would study medicine,” Franchella says.
In due time, Franchella enrolled at the University of Buenos Aires, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in physiology. By 1974, he had also acquired a medical degree from the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine, and by 1980 had completed cardiology training at the Argentine College of Angiology and become an angiology specialist. During this time he was also an avid soccer player, and as his education and career took him from place to place, he managed to find a way to keep up with the sport.
Perhaps it was soccer, perhaps something else more fundamental to his nature, but exercise science and sports medicine were always on Franchella’s mind, even as he was advancing in his career as a cardiologist. At that time in Argentina, sports medicine was not a widely pursued field. He had to do a lot of legwork to keep up with the subject.
“I started to find some papers,” he says, “especially with reference to Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise®.”
ACSM enters the picture
His interest driving him ever onward, he was able to make connections. One thing led to another, and Franchella was eventually in a position to invite Dr. George Brooks to Argentina. The visit was momentous.
“He told me all the things I would like to hear about,” Franchella says. “And then I realized that I could be a member of ACSM.”
Franchella joined the college in 1992. By 1995, he was heading to Minneapolis for an annual meeting. It was there he was able to see how some of the protocols he used in his cardiology work had been developed, and he avers that listening to researchers speaking firsthand about their methods was inspiring.
“This was so important to me,” he says. “I could understand all this.”
Thus he decided to delve deeper into sports medicine and exercise science.
“I started to work and read and be in contact with many things,” he says. “I was, precisely, fond of physiology — physiology and cardiology.”
By 1997, he was an ACSM fellow.
Franchella traded visits with various ACSM members from 1996 to 2001. His own journeys sent him as far afield as the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
Subsequently, he hosted six International Journeys of Excellence in Spanish in Argentina, annually inviting ACSM speakers and presenters to his country and providing simultaneous translation into Spanish. The program attracted roughly 1,000 participants each year. By 2001, he had also hosted an International Team Physician Course.
Franchella’s work in Argentina and Latin America more broadly has been focused on wellness through physical activity. He is, in fact, the director of Exercise is Medicine® in Argentina. He has also founded numerous educational programs to promote physical activity in his home country and abroad. He holds or has held a wide range other positions of distinction and influence, always tying his work back to ACSM, from director of the Argentine Society of Cardiology’s Exercise Cardiology Council to the Argentine Society of Medicine’s Physical Activity Council to director of the Physical Activity Program for Health and Sports at the Clinical Hospital, University of Buenos Aires.
“I have promoted this in Latin America,” he says. “I work with other people in Latin America, and I really for the last 20 years must say that I live working on sports medicine. Cardiology is my second specialty.”
When discussing the public health issues he is attempting to overcome, Franchella notes that Argentina’s problems are similar to those of the States — obesity, diabetes and sedentary lifestyles. But he also highlights stress as a significant contributor to ill health in his country. Argentina has of course weathered a number of major political and economic upheavals, and as such, the population is living quite precariously. Franchella himself has trouble funding many of his own trips and endeavors. Such pressures are not unique to Argentina, but they are felt more acutely there. Physical activity may not remove stressors like these, but it could certainly help relieve some of the pressure.
As for his current and future pursuits, Franchella has a few projects ongoing or in the works. Chief among them, though, is an attempt to establish a better foothold for ACSM in Argentina. Because Argentina doesn’t have the same credentialing system for trainers and instructors as does the U.S., Franchella says he would like to work with ACSM to introduce into Argentina a membership and credentialing system that is both financially accessible to Argentine practitioners and economically viable for the college. He notes that Argentina has roughly 120,000 physicians and a similar number of what are referred to domestically as physical educators. What the country lacks is a structure to effectively bring the two groups closer together.
Franchella sees a pilot program for this in what he and some of his ACSM colleagues were able to informally produce after the 2022 annual meeting San Diego: They recorded special presentations by ACSM leaders, and Franchella put together Spanish translations, adding these to the video in the form of subtitles; he believes it is better to let the audience hear the speakers rather than dub over them. (His experience in this area is growing — he also helped to translate ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription into Spanish.)
Of the project he says, “Perhaps I would like in the future to have something regional, like a Spanish-language regional chapter.”
He thinks it would be feasible to offer a modified membership, possibly translating one or two articles from pertinent ACSM magazines into Spanish just to provide practitioners in Latin America with an introductory association with ACSM and its work. He suspects that in the post-COVID world of Zoom and other videoconferencing and remote-work software, the project might be much more achievable. And great things begin with small steps, after all, like George Brooks’s visit three decades ago.
But even with an eye to the future, Franchella is more than content with things as they are. He reiterates how pleased and honored he is to receive a 2023 ACSM Citation Award, and he goes on to explain how he feels with an appropriate maxim:
“There is a saying in Spanish that happiness is the reference and distance between what you are and what you wish or dream,” he says. “If you dream too high, you are not happy. And if your reality is too low, you are not happy.
“I have to look for another word because my reality is over anything I could dream.”