KPE says goodbye to Roy Shephard, world-renowned authority in the field of physical activity and health

An image of Professor Emeritus Roy Shephard, former director of the School of Physical Health and Education
An image of Professor Emeritus Roy Shephard, former director of the School of Physical Health and Education

The University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) was saddened to learn of the passing of Professor Emeritus Roy J. Shephard in late February, just shy of 94. Shephard was a ground-breaking scientist, prolific author and respected advisor to national and international governments and NGOs on a broad range of issues relating to physical activity and health. 

roy shephard
Roy Shephard, second from the left, was invested into the Order of Canada in 2014 for his pioneering work in the field of exercise science and for promoting the health benefits of physical activity to Canadians

A medical doctor and physiologist from the UK, he was invited to Canada in 1964 under the auspices of the Fitness and Amateur Sport Act of 1961 to spearhead the development of fitness-related research. Initially appointed professor of applied physiology in the School of Physical and Health Education and Department of Preventive Medicine and Biostatistics (Faculty of Medicine), Shephard’s work eventually led to the creation of Canada’s first doctoral program in exercise sciences. 

Shephard served as director of the program until 1985 and during that time mentored and inspired many generations of exercise scientists who now practice and teach across Canada and around the world. In 1979, he began his 12-year term as director of the School of Physical Health and Education, the precursor to KPE, where the graduate program for exercise sciences was eventually housed.

“Roy was the cornerstone of exercise physiology in Canada,” said Jack Goodman, a professor emeritus of KPE and one of the first students to graduate from the doctoral program. “He put Canada on the map and through his influence, Canadians continue to punch well above our collective weight in this field. 

“The Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire for Everyone (PAR-Q), used by millions around the world, is a small example of Roy’s influence. He was also at the forefront of cardiac rehabilitation, adding his research prowess and exercise physiology expertise to Terry Kavanagh’s Toronto Rehab Centre, which became the pre-eminent cardiac rehab program in the world.”

Before coming to U of T, Shephard worked in the cardiac department of Guy’s Hospital in the UK, where he performed diagnostic cardiac catheterizations on children with various forms of congenital heart disease, contributing to the development of open-heart surgery on young children. 

He was flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force when he conducted research on pressure suits, which enabled pilots to survive at high altitudes in the event of cabin failure. At the University of Cincinnati, he studied the effects of air pollution on the elderly residents of nursing homes and, back in England, researched methods of protection against nerve gas.

In Canada, Shephard’s studies of the physiological parameters of fitness provided the scientific basis for the Canadian government’s broad promotion of physical fitness, best known through ParticipAction Canada. He also conducted influential longitudinal studies of physical activity in Canadian Indigenous populations and children in school-based physical education programs.

When Goodman was a graduate student, Shephard invited him to help out with a study looking into the potential impact of the increased use of snowmobiles on the stature of Indigenous populations. 

“He handed me a stack of radiographs of human spines and I was left with the task of quantifying the thickness of the vertebrae,” said Goodman. “Did their thickness reduce with prolonged sitting and bouncing on a snowmobile?

“I knew absolutely nothing about how to quantify this, but I researched it, tried to use a reliable method and promptly handed over the monotonous task to a friend who was bed-ridden after he badly broke his leg while we were on a ski trip. 

“I did a second, blinded analysis, submitted the data to Roy and months later, in my mailbox was a reprint of the published paper with me listed as a co-author. That was my first publication as a grad student and it was a harbinger of what I came to appreciate most about Roy - his ability to write, edit and publish at an incredible rate and across a wide range of topics.”

Shephard wrote and edited more than 1600 scientific papers and 100 books on sports, fitness, exercise, environmental physiology, biochemistry and immunology. Such was his output that Goodman recalls the former president of U of T, Professor Emeritus Robert Pritchard, saying on one occasion that Shephard had been the most prolific publisher in U of T history. 

“In one or two years, he would publish a career’s worth,” said Goodman. “Knowing how much time it takes, I’ve never understood the math behind his productivity.”  

roy shephard
A recent picture of Professor Ira Jacobs and Professor Emeritus Roy Shephard 

Professor Ira Jacobs remembers having folders full of papers with R.J. Shephard as senior author when he was an undergraduate student in physical education.

“Roy’s first book Endurance Fitness was a classic, one of the only comprehensive textbooks about exercise physiology available at the time,” said Jacobs. “I pretty much memorized the contents when I prepared for my end-of-course exercise physiology final exam, and it helped me ace the exam, cementing my decision to pursue graduate studies in the field.

“You can imagine what a thrill it was later in life when I had the chance to meet him at the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) conferences, and then interact more closely with him when I became affiliated with U of T.”

Jacobs’ academic career was kicked off with a graduate course he co-taught with a colleague from DRDC in the rapidly growing graduate program of exercise sciences.

“Dr. RJ Shephard was a quiet and introverted giant in a field of research whose explosive growth has been stimulated in no small way by his research,” said Jacobs. “Humble almost to a fault, the combination of his scientific breadth of knowledge and wry sense of humour always made for an enjoyable and stimulating meeting.”

Professor Gretchen Kerr, dean of KPE, was just a few years behind Goodman in the doctoral program Shephard founded, focusing on behavioural sciences and sport psychology.

“One of the many benefits of Roy’s mentorship was the emphasis on interdisciplinary work in the pursuit of a healthier, more active society,” said Kerr. “Through his mentorship, I learned that the big questions of the day can only be addressed by integrating various disciplinary areas and the cross-pollination of ideas. 

“Today, this understanding and appreciation for the contributions made by all disciplinary areas in our field and the necessity of working across disciplinary lines has been foundational to my role as dean and to the development of the Faculty’s new Academic Plan.”

Shephard started numerous collaborations with institutions such as Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC), Toronto Rehabilitation Centre (TRI), The Gage Research Institute and many more, which continue to provide KPE graduate students with outstanding research opportunities. 

“Establishing the field of kinesiology as a valuable field of scholarship and research in its own right was one of Roy’s most significant contributions,” said Kerr. “In doing so, he brought to the fore the emphasis on the population health benefits of physical activity.

“While including exercise for treatment of illness and injury, he helped to broaden the field to include exercise for prevention and for optimal health and development.” 

“He contributed so much,” said Professor Emeritus Scott Thomas. “Promoting the inclusion of physical activity and exercise into health care by generating clinical scientific evidence was key. 

“Professionally, the most valuable lesson he imparted on me was the importance of writing. It is critical to evaluate what the research shows and then to get the message out.”

In fact, Kerr and Goodman both remember getting back papers from Shephard when they were his graduate students covered in red ink from the comments he provided. 

“He taught me about precision, and to answer a question directly and accurately, whether it was orally or through writing,” said Goodman. “He was persnickety about units and grammar and would point out split infinitives and ask you to get rid of jargon.”

“I learned that how we communicate is as important as what we communicate,” said Kerr.

In 2014, Shephard was appointed to the Order of Canada, for his pioneering work in the field of exercise science and for promoting the health benefits of physical activity to Canadians, adding to his many honours and awards. On the occasion, Jacobs, then dean of KPE, called Shephard’s impact on the exercise sciences "one of the most prodigious in the world" over the last half century.

“Roy’s enthusiasm for academics, our program and research in physical activity and health was infectious,” said Goodman. “It was impossible not to feel you were in the presence of something very special. 

“He was a rare and generational talent.”

Professor Emeritus Bruce Kidd got the news of Shephard’s passing while in Japan, where he had travelled with his wife Phyllis, who was entered to run the Tokyo marathon.

“There were about 40.000 participants in the marathon,” said Kidd. “The growth of recreational running around the world is in no small part a consequence of Roy’s pioneering research, advocacy and encouragement of exercise at all ages, over so many years.

“I quietly saluted him when the gun went off.”

 “He will be missed,” said Jacobs. 

An obituary chronicling the life of Roy Shephard was recently published in the Squamish Chief.