Working to address exercise and movement in eating disorders
Brian Cook, MSAPK ’06, PH.D. ’10, earned a master’s and doctorate degree in the Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology. His career includes serving in leadership at a nation-wide eating disorder clinic focused on movement, research and outcomes.
What are you currently working on?
Most recently, I worked at an eating disorders treatment center with locations across the nation. My primary responsibilities were to implement a clinical treatment program that addressed exercise and movement in eating disorders, evaluate clinical outcomes for all areas of the treatment model, and conduct research with the clinical data.
What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievement (so far)?
Developing and translating an original line of research into clinical practice that can help people. Estimates are that approximately 30 million people in the U.S. will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life. This prevalence is also increasing. About half of those people use exercise in a way that worsens their eating disorder. The consequences include reduced quality of life, severe comorbidities (e.g., anxiety, trauma, depression, etc.), physical impairments, increased risk for suicide and self harm, cardiac complications, and death.
When I got to UF I wanted to work on these issues. At that time (in 2003), there was very little research or effective clinical practices for individuals with eating disorders that use exercise. The work I began at HHP first identified a problem, began to understand the mechanisms of that problem, and over time I have translated this into clinical approaches and disseminated this line of research into practice.
My greatest professional achievement has been seeing how this translation of research into practice has impacted lives. I'm incredibly humbled by clients that have pulled me aside before they discharge and tell me that this aspect of care is what they needed, what other treatment centers have not provided, and it has made the difference in saving their life.
What has been your greatest professional challenge?
Changing attitudes, perceptions, and misunderstanding about the role of exercise in health. As this pertains to exercise in eating disorders treatment, the status quo has been to not allow any type of exercise or movement during treatment and often not even during recovery. This type of advice was born out of an abundance of caution and failed initial attempts at understanding how to treat exercise in eating disorders. I have published on how this is an ethical failure to continue to take such approaches despite advances in knowledge of the etiology of exercise in eating disorders and development of effective treatment approaches. I've seen a lot of change in the field over the years since I have been working on this problem. That change is encouraging, but it has been slow and challenging to change people's understanding of this problem.
What drew you to your career or industry?
There are so many mixed and often times false messages about the role of exercise, eating, and accepting one's body. It's clear that connection among exercise, eating, and health are much more complicated than what they may seem like on the surface. I like challenge of having to see the bigger picture of health, evaluating and understanding how difference aspects of health are adaptive with each other, and applying understanding of these interactions to help advance healthcare and improve people's lives.
When did you first realize what path you would take with your career?
Being an athlete while growing up, particularly while playing sports in college, often gave many mixed messages about health. These were often at odds with what I was learning during my undergraduate studies. Since undergrad, I've focused on the career I am in now. The path has had some very unexpected twists and turns, but I love what I do.
Who do you look up to most in your profession?
I try to never forget that the work I am doing is not entirely about understanding some aspect of eating disorders. Rather, it is about understanding the impact these disorders have on people's lives. It's easy to lose sight of that while working with numbers in the data. Each of those number represents a person or some important part of a person. I look up to anyone that doesn't lose sight of this, my colleagues that continue to push through in understanding complicated aspects of these diseases and their treatment, and most importantly, I look up to individuals with eating disorders that have been brave through their recovery and gracious enough to allow professionals like me to understand their process so that we may share that with others.
How has HHP equipped you for the future?
My time in HHP has exposed me to so much more than I thought it would. I was fortunate to learn from renown experts in a variety of fields, some fields that I thought at the time were unrelated to what I do or will do in the future. The breadth of knowledge I was exposed to in HHP has made all of the difference. I have taken my experiences in HHP and been able to make connections from various health disciplines that can help advance understanding better than had if I had a more narrow scope of training. Basically, HHP has equipped me to see the bigger picture.
Why should a prospective student choose to study in HHP?
HHP provides an incredible foundation for your career. After I graduated, I worked at several other universities and now in the private sector. The training provided in HHP is second to none.
Why did you decide to come to UF HHP?
The faculty. HHP and UF had (and still has) an unbelievable collection of world leaders. Being a student in HHP allowed me to learn form the best and to access other incredible faculty throughout the UF campus. The interdepartmental collegiality and opportunity at UF was a big reason I wanted to be a Gator.
How has your education in HHP helped you with your career?
It has helped me to see aspects of health that I would not have understood had I taken other paths I was considering before deciding to attend HHP. I could not do what I do now without the foundation HHP provided me.
What’s your best advice to current students?
Be proactive. Your time in college is relatively short. Seek out and take advantage of opportunities both within HHP and throughout the UF community. There's plenty at UF to help nurture your intellectual curiosity.
Did you ever think you would end up where you are now?
It's so hard to look forward and know where you will land. But looking back, it all makes sense. Where I am now is where I wanted to be. The path to get here has been unexpected, but (in hindsight) was absolutely necessary.
[Profile updated in 2022]
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