The Biggest U.S. Study on Exercise Just Ran Out of Money

The National Runners' and Walkers' Health Studies is the latest casualty of a dwindling NIH budget
Photographer: Romilly Lockyer/Getty Images

Since 1991, Paul Williams, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has been studying the same 156,000 people to find out how their running and walking habits affect their health. About every 10 years, he asks them about their medical history and tracks their health outcomes as the years go on. Now that many participants are older, he's also assessing their aging process and life spans. About a third of Williams's participants came to him through a survey that Runner's World published on his behalf; the rest he found by approaching people at road races.

The National Runners' and Walkers' Health Studies, as Williams's project is called, is the country's largest longitudinal exercise study and has led to the publication of 65 papers. Some of the project's results are obvious (running will help you lose weight faster than walking) while others are more revelatory. Williams has linked regular running and walking to a decrease in the risk of breast cancer, Alzheimer's, and even cataracts. He's found that runners are less likely to suffer from joint problems and arthritis than nonrunners, and that heart attack survivors are less likely to die from heart disease if they run a moderate amount each week (run more than that and the protective benefits seem to disappear). "We know exercise is good for us," Williams said, "but I'm trying to find out what the benefits really are."

Until January, Williams's study was solely funded through the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the largest provider of federal money to research labs and universities in the U.S. The agency supports more than 300,000 scientists at 2,500 universities; scientists working on long-term projects, like Williams, submit new grant applications every couple of years to keep the money flowing in. At least, that's the way it used to work: Much to his surprise, Williams's most recent NIH application was denied. That means his plans to resurvey all 156,000 people to see whether their exercise habits have increased their life expectancy, affected their risk of cancer, or staved off the pains of aging have been put on hold indefinitely. "Right now, I have no funding," he said.

He's not the only one. The number of grant applications that receive NIH funding has dropped from 31 percent in 1997 to 18 percent last year. In part, that's because more researchers are submitting applications — the agency now receives about 51,000 a year, more than double the number in 1997 — but it's also because the agency has less money to go around. "The price of research has gone up faster than our [budget], which means we've had to support increasingly larger grants — which in turn means we can offer fewer of them," said Sally Rockey, the NIH's deputy director for extramural research. "The whole system is quite unstable." In December, the NIH shut down a $1.3 billion, 14-year-long study of children that was supposed to continue for another seven years in hopes of explaining the rise in conditions such as asthma and autism.

The agency didn't always have money trouble. Between 1997 and 2003, Congress more than doubled its budget, from $13 billion to $27 billion. During those years, the NIH gave out an unprecedented number of grants, which allowed researchers to hire more people, open new labs, and embark on ambitious long-term projects. "No one thought our money would keep doubling, but there was an expectation that increases would be predictable and could be planned for," Rockey said. But over the past decade, the purchasing power of the NIH's budget has dropped by about 25 percent. The agency also suffered a severe blow in 2013, when sequestration slashed its budget by more than 5 percent. It has recovered somewhat since then, and President Obama's 2016 budget request includes a 3.3 percent increase that would bring the NIH's budget to about $31 billion, although that's still smaller than before the sequester.

"For some of us, this is the worst we've ever seen," said Dan Burke, a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Virginia who lost his NIH funding two years ago. Since 1987, Burke had been receiving around $500,000 a year from the NIH for cancer research; since losing that money, he's reduced his lab staff from 14 to two and repairs his own equipment to save money. "I keep submitting new grants hoping to get one funded," Burke said. "If it continues like this, I'll have to turn out the lights and shut the doors."

In the absence of NIH money, researchers are getting creative with their funding sources. Some do more work with pharmaceutical companies, while Williams has turned to other government agencies to try and keep his National Runners' and Walkers' Health Studies going. He submitted a grant to the Department of Defense to study the relationship between running and a decrease in the risk of breast cancer, but it too was denied. "This doesn't mean the study is going away," he said, "just that I can't do anything with it right now."

On Jan. 15, Runner's World made an open plea on Williams's behalf, asking readers to support his work by contacting the Department of Energy, which owns his Berkeley lab, and urging it to keep the study going. Williams said he hasn't yet received any private donations, although he's gotten a lot of e-mails from runners letting him know they've written to the Department of Energy. "We're unique in that we have a constituency — the running community — which includes congressmen and businessmen and all sorts of people who have the unique potential to help us," he said. "Not every researcher has that."

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