If you don't consider a link between higher levels of exercise and higher levels of certain "good" cholesterol a contradiction in terms, you can thank Peter Wood. Wood, an emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford University, was an early researcher on diet, cholesterol and exercise. He died March 3 in Palo Alto of bile duct cancer. He was 81.
His seminal research on the effects of exercise, diet and weight on blood lipids and overall health inspired decades of subsequent investigations and influenced current health guidelines that suggest lifestyle adjustments reduce the risk of heart disease.
Born in London in 1929, Wood studied chemistry at the University of London and eventually earned his doctorate in lipid biochemistry. A runner from an early age, he became a member of London's Herne Hill Harriers in 1946 and competed in race events while in the Royal Air Force in 1949. His athleticism -- he himself estimated he ran in more than 100 marathons in his lifetime -- was to become his inspiration for groundbreaking research at Stanford.
He moved with his wife, Christine, to the United States in 1962 and began his research at the Oakland Institute of Metabolic Research, moving to Stanford in 1969 to work as a research assistant. There, he collaborated on two large National Institute of Health grants with John Farquhar, a professor of medicine, and Nathan Maccoby, a professor of communication. One grant funded the "Three Community Study" to test the effects of public-health campaigns aimed at reducing heart disease risk; the other created lipid research clinics, one headed by Wood, whose collaboration resulted in a study establishing the relationship between lowering certain kinds of cholesterol and preventing heart attacks.
It was through these two studies that the three, along with professor of medicine William Haskell, established the Stanford Prevention Research Center, through which Wood reported a never-before-published link between exercise and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Wood and Haskell published a groundbreaking study in 1977, concluding that the blood of athletes contained high levels of HDL, popularly known as "good cholesterol," which lowers arterial cholesterol buildup.
Their discovery of a correlation between exercise and HDL was inspired by Wood's habit of testing his own plasma to develop cholesterol measurement methods, a colleague said. Finding his HDL levels unusually high, he tested the blood of fellow runners and found their blood to contain similar levels of "good cholesterol." The resulting study set the stage for 30 years of subsequent research that corroborated and extended Wood's findings.
Wood merged his two life interests of research and running and had published more than 150 articles on the effects of diet and exercise on overall health when he retired from Stanford. Committed to disease prevention research, he regularly lectured on running and health and remained active, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 72.
Wood was preceded in death by his wife in 2004 and is survived by his daughter and son-in-law, Loretta and Barry Walter, of Bonny Doon. A public memorial is being planned, and Stanford is planning a symposium in Wood's honor.
The family recommends that those wishing to make a donation in Wood's honor may consider giving to the following organizations: BOK Ranch, the Humane Society of the United States, the Gorilla Foundation, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Special Olympics and Doctors Without Borders.