Professor Bob Morgan
International Engagement Officer
The Wollotuka Institute
Placing weight on men’s obesity
Can children help their fathers become healthier?
Internationally-renowned obesity expert for men, Professor Philip Morgan, believes so and through a suite of innovative programs he is proving that a family approach to fitness is key to tackling one of the world's major public health epidemics.
The Co-Director of the University of Newcastle's Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition, Professor Morgan's dedication and commitment to addressing obesity and promoting healthy lifestyles in children has seen him receive 27 academic awards - including nine national and international research excellence awards - over the past six years.
The world-first Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids program is one example of the obesity prevention initiatives Professor Morgan has designed that has been proven to help fathers manage their weight, engage children to eat more healthily, be more active and improve the overall quality of life of families.
"Men are seriously under-represented in weight loss research, which is a major concern considering 70 per cent of Australian males are considered to be overweight or obese," said Professor Morgan.
"Dads initially sign up to our programs to lose a few kilos, thinking that it would also be nice to spend some quality time with their kids participating in some fun physical activities," he said.
"During the program they come to understand the profound influence that their parenting practices, actions, behaviours, and attitudes have on their children – this realisation becomes a driving force behind their motivation to get fit and become more engaged in their children's lives."
The multi-award winning, evidence-based program uses the novel concept of reciprocal reinforcement by encouraging children to act as 'little personal trainers' for their dads in the home. In turn, the fathers are motivated by the importance of role modelling to engage with their children.
"The magic in Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids comes from both the dads and kids working together, motivated to help each other, and in turn changing their own behaviours," said Professor Morgan.
"For example, the children are told it's your job to help Dad eat well, so it's important for you to eat your veggies at the dinner table because these veggies are really important for your Dad and he might copy you.
"Similarly, Dads in the program are shown how influential they can be in getting children to eat veggies by trying them in front of their children. In doing so, both are eating veggies for each other and may not have done it for themselves."
The physical activity sessions are interactive, highly active, fun and focus on elements found in extensive research to be associated with optimal child development outcomes across physical, cognitive and social-emotional domains. This includes fundamental movement skills, health-related fitness-based activities and rough-and-tumble play. The program also has the added benefit of helping fathers become more involved with all aspects of their children's lives, leading to enhanced social and emotional well-being for their children.
Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids has been tested through University of Newcastle-based trials and evaluated through numerous local community roll-outs across the Upper Hunter and Hunter Valley, and Great Lakes regions in New South Wales, Australia. Resources are available for communities and organisations anywhere in the world, with many of the messages transcending cultures.
"In general, a father's love for his child, his desire to do his best for that child, and the unique way fathers' play, physically interact and engage with their children; are universal feelings and behaviours that are incorporated and targeted in the program as motivating factors to deliver results in sustainable lifestyle change."
Tapping into the psyche of men has also been key to the success of Professor Morgan's other key research programs, with Morgan stating that, compared to women, men are reluctant to sign up to weight loss programs.
"The lack of understanding of motivators for weight-loss for men has led to programs that do not account for gender differences in design and delivery, and many men consider them to be unappealing," Professor Morgan said.
"This is concerning, especially since the burden of disease falls disproportionately with men due to greater abdominal fat tissue which greatly increases their cardiovascular disease risk," he said.
"With obesity costing the Australian economy approximately $60 billion per year, there is a real need for evidence-based, realistic, wide-reaching and easily disseminated programs that take into account the male physiological and psychological profile."
Professor Morgan's internationally acclaimed programs help men lose weight but don't outlaw the beer or foods they enjoy or make participants undertake unsustainable exercise regimes.
In the SHED-IT program, weight loss messages are tailored for blokes and delivered in a light hearted manner with the latest research simplified in an understandable and palatable manner. The program also utilises technology and engages with participants through a DVD, the internet, video messages and SMS.
SHED-IT has been described by the prestigious Annals of Behavioral Medicine journal as "a momentous step toward addressing the long overlooked need to develop behavioural weight control programs that appeal predominantly to men and have wide reaching potential to impact obesity among the male half of our population."
Professor Morgan's Workplace POWER (Preventing Obesity Without Eating like a Rabbit) is targeted directly towards men and is delivered in the workplace. The program uses a DVD resource or information session, an interactive website and a number of gender-tailored resources to educate men on how to improve their own lifestyles. Workplace POWER was recognised with an inaugural National Preventative Health Award in 2013 for the best intiative in Workplace Health and Well-being for large workplaces.
"Instead of prescriptive diets to follow – which is likely to turn men off - these programs educate men about embedding physical activity and healthy eating into their day and use language and approaches they understand and relate to," adds Professor Morgan.
"This can range from teaching them how to read food labels to understanding energy balance, overcoming urges and increasing incidental activity."
Well regarded in his field, Professor Morgan has secured grants from the NH&MRC, Australian Research Council Discovery, Australian Research Council Linkage, Heart Foundation, NSW Health and large industry and community grants to help address the growing epidemic.
Watch the video below to hear Professor Morgan's tips on the best ways to make health messages memorable and engaging for staff in workplace programs.
Tailor-made health education
Professor Philip Morgan is tackling the national obesity epidemic by developing innovative, targeted weight-loss education programs grounded in strong science.
Professor Philip Morgan has a national icon in his sights: the much-maligned Aussie beer gut. The Co-Director of the University of Newcastle's Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, and 2012 Scopus Young Researcher of the Year, has waged a personal war on expanding waistlines by designing and delivering a suite of health education programs that have changed the body shapes and lives of many participants.
By recognising the importance of tailoring health messages for specific demographic sub-groups, Morgan has achieved significant success with programs promoting weight loss, healthy eating and exercise, particularly with high-risk male cohorts that health educators have traditionally found difficult to reach.
His high-profile programs include the men's online weight-loss program SHED-IT (Self-Help, Exercise and Diet Using Information Technology); Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids, which encourages overweight fathers to be healthy role models for their children; and Workplace POWER (Preventing Obesity Without Eating Like a Rabbit), which targets overweight male shiftworkers.
"People wrongly accuse men of being disinterested in weight loss, but if you design customised programs that appeal to men, it is easy to push the right buttons to engage them and rouse their interest and motivation," Morgan says.
"By creating programs that specifically speak to men, that allow them to not give up some of their 'dietary luxuries' and don't require frequent and potentially time-consuming face-to-face contact, they respond enthusiastically and achieve great weight-loss outcomes."
Morgan's academic background is in health and physical education but the Faculty of Education and Arts researcher has built multidisciplinary expertise that draws from the fields of medicine, nutrition, psychology, epidemiology and health promotion.
Drawing from his teaching expertise, he has adopted a 'hands-on' approach to research, from supervising recruitment to delivering intervention sessions, featuring in DVDs and website blogs and training community facilitators. He uses the insight gleaned from those frontline activities to inform his innovative methods and ensure the key messages of each program remain relevant to their respective audiences.
Children's health and wellbeing is also a focus for Morgan and his work as part of a wider University of Newcastle research team evaluating targeted physical activity and healthy eating interventions in a host of school and community settings has been nationally and internationally recognised. As a chief investigator he has attracted more than $4 million in government and external funding from sources including the Australian Research Council, National Health and Medical Research Council, NSW Health, Coal & Allied, Tomago Aluminium, the Department of Education and Communities and the Heart Foundation.
Over the past six years, Morgan's work in research, teaching and the community has been recognised with more than 20 major academic awards, including the Scopus Award, a Young Tall Poppy Award from the Australian Institute of Policy and Science in 2009 and four national awards for teaching excellence.
Morgan won the Humanities and Social Science category of the Scopus Awards and is the first University of Newcastle researcher to receive the accolade. The awards recognise outstanding researchers under the age of 40 in Australasia who have made significant contributions in their areas of research.
The weight-loss programs Morgan has developed have matured into ongoing, community-based programs that not only play an important role in addressing the national obesity epidemic but also make a real difference to the quality of life of many individuals.
"An underlying philosophy of all our programs is teaching people how to lose weight in a sustainable and realistic manner, so we promote the mantra that whatever changes in your lifestyle you make to lose weight, you need to be prepared to maintain them for the rest of your life," he says.
"Obesity is a major community health problem in Australia, which affects 70 per cent of men, 55 per cent of women and 25 per cent of children and costs the country billions of dollars in direct and indirect health care costs every year. I am passionate about engaging and educating our community to address this serious national public health issue and improving the quality of life of Australians."