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NMSU researcher studies the benefits of motor skills and physical activity

Adriana M. Chavez

LAS CRUCES — An associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at New Mexico State University examines how and why children move in hopes of promoting physical activity into adulthood.

Larissa True joined the NMSU faculty last fall from the State University of New York – Cortland. True’s areas of expertise are engine development, statistics and research methods.

“We are very pleased to have Dr. True join the Department of Kinesiology,” said Joseph M. Berning, Chief of the Department of Kinesiology. “His experience and background bring a rare combination that will benefit undergraduate and graduate students in the fields of motor development and statistics. During her short time here, she has already made great strides in contributing to the advancement of our department, and we look forward to a great future with her on the team.

True earned her Ph.D. in kinesiology with a concentration in motor development from Michigan State University, where she studied with renowned physical activity researcher Karin Pfeiffer.

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“While I was at Michigan State, I wanted to dig deeper into how kids move and why they move the way they do,” True said. “Think of when you were a little kid in PE class. You had the superstars here, but the struggling kids are here. Why the hell?”

True said that while researching the subject, she discovered a connection between genetics and movement. She became interested in a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is encoded by the BDNF gene.

“All humans secrete BDNF, and this is important because its secretion leads to synaptic plasticity, which lends itself to learning new skills and then memorizing how to do those skills,” True said. .

True said the BDNF gene can be expressed in different ways. For example, someone with the polymorphism, a genetic variation, would not secrete as much BDNF as someone without the polymorphism.

“With my thesis, I wanted to see if physical activity would somehow reverse the effects of polymorphism,” True said. “Turns out it is.”

True said she found children with the polymorphism who became more physically active and showed motor skills at the same level as children without the polymorphism.

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“This gives us a good way to promote physical activity because the more active you are, the more BDNF you secrete and the faster you should be able to learn and relearn motor skills,” True said.

True’s research primarily focuses on assessing polymorphism and its effects in schoolchildren. This evaluation involves the use of sputum kits to determine a child’s gene expression. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, True was unable to conduct these assessments and focused on students, including student-athletes.

“I posted an article that was written with one of my former masters students,” True said. “We looked at fitness, motor skill, and perceived skill, which is a person’s individual perception of the quality of certain skills.”

True said he found college student-athletes see themselves as better movers and are better movers compared to the average college student.

“A lot of it has to do with what happened when they were kids,” True said. “Physical activity tends to decline over a lifetime, but if we can encourage children to be active in their youth, the idea is that if you learn to move and you learn to move properly, you will want do more as you get older. It’s human nature. We tend not to do the things we’re not good at.”

Of concern, True said, is that due to COVID-19 and the shift to online learning, physical education classes are being cut.

“Kids need it, especially when kids get into middle school,” True said. “There’s a ton of research across the board, especially in academic achievement, that children across the state do better in school when they have the opportunity to move.”

To learn more about this research, visit

“EYE ON RESEARCH” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s article was written by Adriana M. Chávez. She can be reached at 575-646-1957, or by email at [email protected]

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