The University of Newcastle, Australia

Fit for Purpose

An early career as a Physical Education teacher and a lifelong passion for sport and fitness has led to Professor David Lubans’s life-focus: improving the health and wellbeing of young people.

An unwavering commitment to making a difference directed  David to the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition at The University of Newcastle, where he’s Theme Leader for Physical Activity in Nutrition in Schools. David’s career progression has always had physical activity and wellbeing at its core – and now the benefits are radiating outwards into society.

David was working as PE teacher with weekends supplemented with competitive Rugby when he was offered a scholarship to play rugby union and undertake a Masters degree at the University of Oxford. He mentions this fact in a very nonchalant manner, but it was obvious that these talent spotters recognised that his prowess on the pitch was equaled by his keen research mind.

A successful Masters degree promptly led to the offer of a PhD at Oxford, and this helped him recognise the importance of  using rigorous research studies to provide evidence for the benefits of physical activity in schools  to improve student outcomes.

Serendipitously, not long after completing his PhD, the opportunity of a position arose at the University of Newcastle. “I grew up in Newcastle so I always thought I’d come back at some stage in my life, but when I came to the University I realised that it was everything I wanted – and it’s only gotten better over time,” he says with a smile.

“When I first returned to Newcastle, Professor Phil Morgan was the only other person in our department doing any research in this area, so we started collaborating and built our own programs of research that are both complementary and independent. Over time, Professor Ron Plotnikoff arrived and we were successful in securing Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition, that also includes Professors Clare Collins, Robin Callister and Manohar Garg”.

When asked to define his research focus, David is quickly able to succinctly sum up his interests. “My first area of interest is studying the effects of physical activity and fitness on cognitive and mental health,” he says. “We’re working on a range of experimental studies that explore how getting people active can improve their mental health and their ability to perform cognitive tasks.”

Healthy bodies, healthy minds

His second area of interest is the design, evaluation and dissemination of school-based physical activity interventions. “Over the years I’ve built a strong relationship with the NSW Department of Education, as they really see the value in what we’re doing and they’re willing to both fund and support the implementation of our work.”

This research has a global reach, with schools around the world taking note of these Hunter-initiated programs. “Internationally, there is now considerable interest in supporting schools to ‘scale-up’ successful physical activity interventions,” David adds.

David has a range of collaborative research projects currently on the boil and the NHMRC funded Burn 2 Learn program has the potential to have an impact in its target market. “With this program we’re looking to embed High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) within the school environment for senior school students,” David explains.

“We know that if students do two or three 10 minute blocks of HIIT sessions per week they’ll experience great improvements in their physical and mental health – and now we’re interested in working out what effect it will have on their cognitive function and academic performance.”

Supporting students through the stressful final years of high schools takes a village – so it’s important that we know what the issues are, and how they can be addressed. Being time-poor, and focused on their study, one of the first things students tend to sacrifice is sport and exercise. “We know that in Year 11 students’ physical activity levels drop off dramatically,” David explains.

“At the same time they’re stressed – with 40 per cent experiencing anxiety levels that are of clinical concern. We know that physical activity has a powerful therapeutic effect on stress and mental wellbeing, so if we embed activity into the school day, and can link it to academic performance then schools will buy in and deliver the program. We can then allow students to experience a whole range of physical, psychological, social and cognitive benefits.”

Healthy measure

Measuring mental health is complex, so David and his team use a variety of different measures. “The simplest is through self-report measures– how they’re feeling from day-to-day,” he says. “With mental health in adolescents we try to measure both wellbeing, for example self-esteem but also examine indicators of clinical ill-being, such as anxiety and depression.”

“IN the Burn 2 Learn study we will also measure cortisol deposits in students’ hair samples– which is a technique for measuring stress that’s still in its early days – but we hope to observe reductions in cortisol levels in the intervention group,” David says.

The research projects are taking the best of global knowledge and translating it in the Hunter. “We’re working with an international leader in the cognitive health field, Professor Chuck Hillman from Northeastern University, and we’ve received funding for Burn 2 Learn to use MRI scanning to actually look at potential changes in the structure and function of the brain as a result of improvements in fitness.”

David’s experience as a PE teacher, combined with his research career, has honed his clarity on the position that activity should play in our lives. “Over time, I realised the importance of reaching the greatest number of kids. That’s how I developed such a passion for public health and the benefit of getting more people moving more often.”

“One of the nice things about doing this for a while is that you get a clearer vision about where you want to go. By generating new knowledge about the effects of physical activity on cognitive function and focusing on the process of intervention implementation it might be possible to achieve outcomes that last beyond my research career,” he explains.

“If we can demonstrate that fitter students are less stressed, better behaved in class in class and outperform their less active peers in academic tasks, schools will feel compelled to implement evidence-based physical activity programs.

Love your work

David is enthusiastic about the collegiality in his department and the PRC, “It’s a great place to work and has a very positive culture. We have had a very multi-disciplinary approach from very early on in terms of collaborating with others outside education and I think that’s only strengthened our success.”

With the title of Professor under his belt, David is now keen to focus on the younger generation of researchers. “My biggest goals now are seeing my mentees do well and for them to have successful, balanced careers. I’m happy to give my students opportunities such as first authorship on journal publications or bringing them onto grants to help them create a track record.”

“The students and people we’ve been able to attract to UON have done wonderful things and they really do make us look good.”