Meet Baylor’s nationally honored expert on physical activity & healthy aging
We’re used to doctors prescribing medicine when patients need it — but what about prescriptions for exercise, or fresh vegetables?
That’s just one of the areas being studied by Dr. Kelly Ylitalo (BS ’04) — a Baylor alumna, associate professor in BU’s Department of Public Health, and a rising star as a researcher and epidemiologist. Her work blends health, data science, sociology and more to help communities (and the organizations that serve them) better promote the health of the people who live there.
“My research is an opportunity to think globally and act locally,” says Ylitalo, who returned to her alma mater in 2013 after earning her doctorate in epidemiological science at Michigan. Given such an approach, it’s not surprising to find aspects of her research taking place at Waco Family Medicine, the World Hunger Relief farm, and other such Central Texas locations.
In 2019, Ylitalo was awarded a highly coveted National Institutes of Health (NIH) career development award to invest in her studies of the link between physical activity and healthy aging. The $626,000 award was a meaningful investment by the NIH, given only to the most promising early-career researchers; it supports her research partnership with Waco Family Medicine, a health center serving one of every five McLennan County residents. Her data-driven work analyzes the effectiveness of innovative programs like exercise and vegetable prescriptions. Waco Family Medicine doctors actually prescribe workouts at their wellness center, or vegetables from World Hunger Relief’s Veggie Van, and it’s important for them to be able to know if such experimental approaches work.
Tides of quantitative and qualitative data — from individual health records, exercise and vegetable referrals, and more — are synthesized through a custom app by Ylitalo and her team to measure effectiveness and improve health outcomes.
“Kelly’s work is so important in helping us track extraneous data that we’re running on patients, and merging with electronic health records data,” says Wendy Cox, Waco Family Medicine’s community health engagement manager. “It’s striking that she knows the value of every part of this project, even the small parts, and always keeps the patient at the forefront.”
A Baylor graduate who developed an interest in public health on a Mission Waco trip to Haiti as a Baylor student, Ylitalo keeps service-minded scholarship in the forefront, partnering with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty and Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion.
“Jesus cared for the most vulnerable people,” Ylitalo explains. “I think public health has a similar mission of making sure that every person in every population is valued and has the opportunity to be healthy. Public health research and a Christian research university go hand in hand.”
Sic ’em, Dr. Ylitalo!