The patient breathes harder as his workout intensifies. His metabolic fingerprint – heart rate, oxygen level and other data – streams onto a tablet in the form of a colorized digital bar that shows exactly what his muscles are doing and the fuels he’s burning.
“In the purple zone he’s stressing his anaerobic system, and in the red he’s going to burn muscle mass if he stays up there too long,” says Nicholas Edwards, director of Exercise-Medicine Integration in the Department of Family Medicine, CU School of Medicine. “The blue here represents his prime zone, where he performs best during exercise and creates the most energy, so he’s safely burning the most pound for pound right at this second.”
Edwards is also co-founder and chief scientific officer of METHOD, a CU spinoff company, that is proving to be a health game-changer by connecting exercise to medicine. The system gives thousands of pro athletes and patients access to individualized, real-time metabolic information that, when combined with a prescribed fitness regimen, builds strength and stamina, reduces injury, sheds weight and improves their response to treatment.
‘Medically based fitness plan’
These metabolic data points help tailor regimens to a specific physiology – whether the person be a pro athlete, weekend warrior or couch potato – to provide healthy outcomes across the continuum of care. “It’s literally like a medically based fitness plan,” says Edwards, who three years ago launched METHOD with an eye toward college and pro athletes. Among the first users were elite athletes who were patients in the Ascent Program at the Center for Dependency, Addiction, and Rehabilitation (CeDAR). The METHOD system has expanded to thousands of patients and athletes, including the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, NFL teams as well as fitness facilities and centers for orthopedics and physical therapy from coast to coast.
Besides being a breakthrough approach – making exercise a prescribed medicine – the METHOD app is a testament to the collaborative innovations regularly occurring on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Family Medicine owns a stake in the enterprise, which was assisted in its launch by CU Innovations. “We collaboratively worked on a system that covers the spectrum – orthopedics through physical therapy to human performance,” says Edwards, who has two business partners.
“Previously, there was nothing that quantified what a person in the gym, the rehab center or the weight room is doing metabolically in real-time,” he says. “Anaerobic exercise was a guess. Through METHOD, we’ve been able to identify somebody’s unique metabolic fingerprint to know what’s going on physiologically as they exercise.”
‘It’s been amazing’
Dan, a patient at UCHealth, went through the three stages of the METHOD system – evaluation, prescription for exercise, and monitoring – under Edwards’ supervision. Dan is a high-level crossfit competitor and works as a paramedic, so he understands the value of physiological data such as heart rate and energy thresholds. “Using the METHOD data, Nick built a training program specific to my capabilities that matched my heart rate and everything,” Dan says. “It’s been amazing. I’ve gotten stronger, faster and more physically fit in the last month and a half than I’ve done on my own, just kind of blind training, over the last year.”
‘This system really dials everything in.’– Nicholas Edwards, METHOD chief scientific officer
Meanwhile, people on the other end of the spectrum, the sedentary and obese, often tell Edwards they don’t know how to workout, feel pain when exercising or are simply intimidated. “The great thing about this system is we’re able to give them specific parameters to know exactly where they should exercise, the exact kind of exercise, and when to start and stop, so they change their body in a healthy and safe way,” he says. “This system really dials everything in.”
Because the app loads onto smartphones and synchs with heart rate monitors, it’s able to monitor whether a user is staying in a metabolic zone too long. “The phone will literally buzz and tell them to speed up or slow down their workout,” Edwards says. “The app has built-in coaching mechanisms across the board.”
‘Solidify best practices’
And the app acts as massive data repository that allows clinicians to view real-time data from users around the country. “I can monitor somebody on an exercise prescription in Maine or in Southern California and compare their outcomes to somebody here in Colorado,” says Edwards, who played college football at North Dakota State and is a former mixed martial professional. “Our goal is to solidify best practices over time.”
Improved outcomes mean athletes get back on the ice or field faster, while patients, either those recovering from surgery or just going through physical therapy, return to their normal lives sooner, Edwards says. “The big payoff is that by optimizing patient outcomes we’re lowering the cost of care, because you’re eliminating guesswork and duplication of services.”
Ditching a worn-out formula
For example, METHOD renders obsolete the timeworn 220-minus-your-age formula for determining a person’s maximum heart rate. Edwards gives the example of a 55-year-old couch potato and a former pro hockey player of the same age. “If you do that old formula, they should exercise the exact same way, which is ludicrous,” he says. “We need to find something different that’s happening with that individual every single day, and that’s what we do with METHOD.”
When not directly coaching athletes and patients through exercise regimens, Edwards speaks about the benefits of METHOD and proper training across the U.S. at the NFL Combine, behavioral health and strength and conditioning conferences and other events. He notes that the system is “really starting to catch fire” as more people turn to individualized exercise regimens.
Edwards says METHOD will further elevate CU SOM’s stature as a global leader in innovation, wellness and health care outcomes. “We’re developing a lasting change – to make medicine and exercise collaborate long term.”