Ralph Paffenbarger, renowned exercise authority, dies at 84

Ralph Paffenbarger

Ralph S. Paffenbarger Jr., MD, DrPH, an internationally known exercise authority and professor emeritus of health research and policy at the School of Medicine, died peacefully at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 9, following a long battle with congestive heart disease. He was 84.

A memorial service and reception will be held at the Stanford Faculty Club on Oct. 6 at 11 a.m.

"He led the physical-activity epidemiology field for a 40-year period," said William Haskell, PhD, Stanford professor of medicine emeritus who is well-known for his own research in this area. "There isn't anybody comparable to him in terms of reputation, publications and important contributions in the area of physical activity and health."

Paffenbarger, who published hundreds of papers on the relationship between exercise and longevity, is perhaps best known for his studies showing that higher levels of physical fitness were associated with a lower risk of heart disease and a marked decrease in death rates.

"He did so much to scientifically prove that physical activity was tied to cardiovascular health," said Terry Kavanagh, MD, professor of exercise science at the University of Toronto and a pioneer in the field of cardiac rehabilitation. "Thank God he was on the scene when heart disease became such a killer."

Paffenbarger's early research, mostly conducted during his time as an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, was in the area of infectious disease epidemiology. He focused on the transmission and pathogenesis of polio. In the late 1950s he turned his attention to physical activity, focusing his research on San Francisco longshoremen and, later, college alumni.

In 1960, he launched the College Alumni Health Study, which used periodic questionnaires to chronicle over several decades the personal characteristics, physical-activity levels, illnesses and deaths of more than 50,000 people who had graduated from either Harvard University or University of Pennsylvania. In a 1988 interview with Runner's World magazine, Paffenbarger referred to the data as a "natural history of ways of life and disease in America."

Using the alumni data, Paffenbarger published an oft-cited study in 1986 showing that men who burned at least 2,000 calories a week through exercise had death rates one-quarter to one-third lower than those who were much less active during 12 to 16 years of follow-up. It also showed that the amount of additional life for people who got adequate exercise, as compared with those who were mostly sedentary, was one to two years.

Paffenbarger admitted to being initially disappointed with the results, telling the Stanford medical school's news office that he would have guessed that the increased lifespan "would have been longer." But he continued to publish paper after paper on the benefits of exercise and to encourage people to stay active.

Paffenbarger took his findings to heart and began competitive running at age 45, ultimately competing in more than 150 marathon events. "He practiced what he preached—he wasn't sitting behind the desk, obese and smoking," said Kavanagh. "He was a living example of an exercising scientist."

Several organizations also paid close attention to Paffenbarger's findings and ultimately modeled exercise and prevention guidelines around them. According to Haskell, Paffenbarger's work significantly influenced the 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health, as well as exercise guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Along with his professional accomplishments, Paffenbarger, called "Paff" by friends and colleagues, was known as an all-around nice guy. "He was a very kind, gentle person who was thoughtful and giving in terms of his time and his mentoring of junior scientists," said Haskell.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Paffenbarger served in World War II before receiving his MD from Northwestern University Medical School and his master's and DrPH in public health from the School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. He spent time at Harvard and UC-Berkeley before coming to Stanford in 1977. He became emeritus in 1993 and returned to UC-Berkeley to join the Department of Human Biodynamics.

Paffenbarger is survived by his wife JoAnn, four children from a previous marriage—Ralph Paffenbarger III, Ann Dow, Charles Paffenbarger and Timothy Paffenbarger—and four grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Mary Dale Higdon, and two sons, James and John Paffenbarger.

For those interested in making charitable contributions in Paffenbarger's honor, the family suggests donations to either the Harvard School of Public Health, College Alumni Health Study, 677 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA, 02115; or to the Stanford University, Department of Health Research and Policy, 326 Galvez St., Stanford, CA., 94305-6105.