Neuroscientist Has a Fitness Plan for Threshold

Dr. Betsy Johnson’s service with local agency receives recognition

Betsy Johnson, at left in second row wearing a pink jacket, prepares to walk the Great Human Race with Threshold members. Photo courtesy of Threshold.
Betsy Johnson, at left in second row wearing a pink jacket, prepares to walk the Great Human Race with Threshold members. Photo courtesy of Threshold.

Between conducting cognitive neuroscience research and earning her PhD at Duke, Elizabeth "Betsy" Johnson finds time to get the patients at Threshold exercising for their health.

For her work at Threshold, which serves people with severe and persistent mental illness, Johnson has been selected by the Duke-Durham Partnership to receive the 2012 Duke University Employee Service Award.

"I was honored when I heard I had received the award," Johnson said. "Receiving the nomination encourages me because it shows Threshold values my commitment to its members, and receiving the award encourages me because it shows my university values my service to the community."

Soon after she began working with Threshold in January of 2010, Johnson proposed a "circuit walking" program to encourage members to engage in healthy recreational activities. The program has since become an important part of the social and recreational activities provided for members every Sunday.

Johnson's hour long class on Sundays is critical for these members because it allows them to engage in healthy recreational activity without excessive physical discomfort.

"What I hoped to add to the already excellent health and wellness program at Threshold was an emphasis on the value of physical exercise for mental health," Johnson said. "Physical exercise not only leads to the release of neurotransmitters that improve mood, learning, and focus, but it also stimulates the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a brain area important for learning and memory."

After participating on behalf of Threshold in the Volunteer Center's Great Human Race last year, Johnson decided that she wanted to give more of her time to the organization. In addition to launching the exercise program, she joined the organization's Board of Directors.

Johnson said it's important to motivate Threshold members, many of whom are not accustomed to regular exercise, to join the circuit walk. By simplifying the rules in her class, she makes exercising an attainable goal to the members.

During the circuit walk, the entire group marches in place in a large circle, Johnson said.  Then each person in the circle takes a turn choosing an exercise to do, from jumping jacks to pushups.

"If a person cannot think of an exercise, they choose a body part, and I give them an exercise that focuses on that body part," she said.  "The whole group then does that exercise for about 30 seconds."

As a doctor with an interest in neuropsychiatry, Johnson's medical experience has been an asset to the center. Johnson is currently a PhD student working at Alison Adcock's motivated memory lab at Duke. She said she plans to pursue a future career as a physician scientist.

Describing her work at Threshold, Johnson believes that it has changed her as much as she has affected the center.

"I work at Threshold to inspire and to be inspired," she said. "I am inspired by the members of Threshold who persevere at being productive members of the Durham community despite debilitating mental illnesses, and I am inspired by members of the Threshold staff who work with them seven days a week to make this possible."