News items Dick Thijssen appointed Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology

10 November 2021

Dick Thijssen has been appointed Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at Radboud university medical center / Radboud University, effective August 1. His field of research is the prevention of cardiovascular disease. In particular, he looks at the influence of exercise on the heart and blood vessels.

"How does exercise protect us from cardiovascular disease?" is the question that has been on Dick Thijssen's (Boxmeer, 1979) mind since 2000, when he began his studies in Biomedical Sciences in Nijmegen as a student. "We know for a long time that exercise lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), but we still don't actually know exactly the reasons why." The interest in exercise and health goes back even further. "That's why I first completed a course in physical therapy. But I wanted the depth of research, so I decided to proceed after finishing physical therapy."

Combining Liverpool and Nijmegen

After obtaining his PhD in Nijmegen in 2007 (title of thesis: The role of endothelin-1 in the regulation of vascular tone in deconditioning and aging), Thijssen obtained a Rubicon grant to work as a postdoc in Liverpool, at John Moores University, arguably the best place for researchers interested in the role of exercise on our health. "The facilities there for sports research are second to none. It's huge, several tests can be administered at the same time. And they are also advanced in terms of technology." It was here that he took his first steps in examining the role that exercise and exertion play in reducing the risk of CVD. He became Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology and Exercise in Liverpool, splitting his time between Nijmegen and Liverpool. "Until the outbreak of COVID-19, I split my time 50/50. In the last 1.5 years, the focus has been more on Nijmegen, and will continue to be."

Cardiovascular disease prevention

Thijssen wants a better understanding of the mechanisms on the impact of exercise on blood vessels, because better understanding of the underlying mechanisms leads to better treatments and interventions. "How great should the exertion be? We see, for example, that single bouts of exercise already has protective effects. What are the mechanisms underlying these effects, what do we learn from them, and how do these effects relate to more intensive or regular exercise training?"

Here, he focuses on both the prevention of cardiovascular disease, including promoting a healthy lifestyle, and the prevention of clinical complications in CVD patients. For example, he studied the impact of so-called high intensity training in the rehabilitation of CVD patients. Partly due to his research, these modes of exercise have now been widely implemented in cardiac rehabilitation. Thijssen: "But we also study the best way to prepare someone for surgery. The better the blood vessels, the better someone will recover."

Is sitting the new smoking?

Another type of study Thijssen will conduct in the coming years focuses on sitting behaviour. He nuances the comment that sitting is the new smoking. "One hour of sitting is not necessarily bad, but one cigarette is," he explains. Still, we need to interrupt this sitting regularly, he says. "We know that sitting less lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, but again, the question is: what are the mechanisms that make sitting bad for our health? Only when we know that, can we develop targeted interventions."

In this regard, the patient and his/her motivation is crucial to basically all of Thijssen's research: "I collaborate significantly with people in the clinic, especially with the Department of Cardiology. Including patients in developing our ideas, whether it's about sitting or about exercise in general, has important benefits for research. Every patient (group) has their own challenges and bumps. We can come up with a perfect plan on paper, but if the patient doesn't adopt the strategy, it's not a perfect plan."

Prof. Dr. D.H.J. Thijssen to Professor of 'Cardiovascular Physiology' appointment August 1, 2021, for 5 years.

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