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Zhen Yan, Ph.D.

Zhen Yan, Ph.D.

Director, Center for Exercise Medicine Research

Zhen Yan, Ph.D.

"The relationship between the body and the mind is well-known, but recently people have found more evidence that exercise is probably one of the best interventions to promote a body-mind relationship, particularly to prevent diseases that are associated with aging like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Exercise is better than medicine.”


Exploring the mechanisms of how exercise benefits human health

Can exercise improve the function of mitochondria to stave off human diseases?

Zhen Yan's research highlights the importance of the power plants of our cells, the mitochondria. The quantity, number, and function of mitochondria are critically important to maintaining good health. Yan believes dysfunctional mitochondria is the genesis of a range of deadly and deblitating human diseases, including cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, cancer, and cognitive decline. His research aims to find ways to improve mitochondrial quality and quantity.  Exercise intervention is one of the best ways to promote mitochondrial function.

  • Professor, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC
  • Director, Center for Exercise Medicine Research, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC
  • Professor, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Tech

Akimoto T, Pohnert SC, Li P, Zhang M, Gumbs C, Rosenberg PB, Williams RS, Yan Z. Exercise stimulates Pgc-1alpha transcription in skeletal muscle through activation of the p38 MAPK pathway. J Biol Chem. 2005 May 20;280(20):19587-93. PubMed PMID: 15767263.

 Laker RC, Lillard TS, Okutsu M, Zhang M, Hoehn KL, Connelly JJ, Yan Z. Exercise prevents maternal high-fat diet-induced hypermethylation of the Pgc-1α gene and age-dependent metabolic dysfunction in the offspring. Diabetes. 2014 May;63(5):1605-11. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5860829.

Call JA, Donet J, Martin KS, Sharma AK, Chen X, Zhang J, Cai J, Galarreta CA, Okutsu M, Du Z, Lira VA, Zhang M, Mehrad B, Annex BH, Klibanov AL, Bowler RP, Laubach VE, Peirce SM, Yan Z. Muscle-derived extracellular superoxide dismutase inhibits endothelial activation and protects against multiple organ dysfunction syndrome in mice. Free Radic Biol Med. 2017 Dec;113:212-223. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5740866.

Cui D, Drake JC, Wilson RJ, Shute RJ, Lewellen B, Zhang M,  Zhao H, Sabik OL, Onengut S, Berr SS, Rich SS, Farber CR, Yan ZA novel voluntary weightlifting model in mice promotes muscle adaptation and insulin sensitivity with simultaneous enhancement of autophagy and mTOR pathway. FASEB J. 2020 Jun;34(6):7330-7344. PubMed PMID: 32304342; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC7325858.

Drake JC, Wilson RJ, Laker RC, Guan Y, Spaulding HR, Nichenko AS, Shen W, Shang H, Dorn MV, Huang K, Zhang M, Bandara AB, Brisendine MH, Kashatus JA, Sharma PR, Young A, Gautam J, Cao R, Wallrabe H, Chang PA, Wong M, Desjardins EM, Hawley SA, Christ GJ, Kashatus DF, Miller CL, Wolf MJ, Periasamy A, Steinberg GR, Hardie DG, Yan Z. Mitochondria-localized AMPK responds to local energetics and contributes to exercise and energetic stress-induced mitophagy. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Sep 14;118(37). PubMed PMID: 34493662; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC8449344.

University of Virginia, Professor

University of Virginia, Associate Professor

Duke University Medical Center, Associate Professor

Duke University Medical Center, Assistant Research Professor

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Assistant Professor and Lead Scientist


  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Ph.D., Physiology and Cell Biology
  • University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign, M.S., Kinesiology
  • Medical Worker's College of Jiangsu Province, China, B.S. Med.
  • Jacobæus Prize, Novo Nordisk Foundation, 2022
  • Induction into the MilliPub Club, 2018
  • Addgene Blue Flame Award, 2016
  • University of Virginia Department of Medicine Outstanding Research Award, 2016
  • University of Virginia Department of Medicine Outstanding Research Award, 2011
  • Outstanding Innovator Award, Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Singapore, 2010
  • American Heart Association Scientist Development Grant, 2001-2003 
  • American Heart Association Texas-Affiliate Beginning Grant-in-Aid, 1999-2000 
  • Appointed to NIH NRSA-Postdoctoral Fellowship at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, 1995-1999
  • 8th International Conference of Exercise Biochemistry Travel Grant, Research
  • Group of Biochemistry of Exercise at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1991
  • Graduate School Thesis Award, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, 1990