The University of Newcastle, Australia

Fit for Learning

Inspired by a love of physical activity, and following in the footsteps of his father, Jordan originally came to UON to train as a PE teacher.

“I always wanted whatever work I did to be meaningful, and I felt that teaching was a way I could have a positive impact on young people.”

After spending some time working in local high schools, an unexpected opportunity came his way.

When UON’s Professor David Lubans was successful in obtaining ARC support for a school-based exercise program, a colleague at the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition put Jordan’s name forward as a potential PhD candidate to work on the project.

“I'm really happy with where I am – my PhD was a really great experience and this field of research is a world I hadn't realised was an option for me earlier on.”

Active Teen Leaders Avoiding Screen-time

Jordan’s PhD project saw him working with high school teachers and students to implement the ‘Active Teen Leaders Avoiding Screen-time' (ATLAS) physical activity program.

The program targeted adolescent boys from low-income areas that were not meeting national physical activity or screen-time guidelines. One of the novel aspects of the program was the use of resistance training as a ‘hook’ to get boys re-engaged with physical activity.

“Most young people fail to appreciate the long-term health benefits of exercise, but teenage boys do care about being fit and strong, and having big muscles.”

“Our goal was to tap into what teenage boys value, but also to shift the focus away from aesthetics, and towards developing fitness while focusing on personal improvement.”

The program also involved an educational element to inform boys of the health hazards of inactivity, excessive screen-time, and over-consumption of sugary drinks, all of which are problematic behaviours in this population.

“I’d seen the negative health behaviours that many of these kids were demonstrating - drinking soft drinks and energy drinks at the start of the school day, and coming to lessons tired from staying up all night on screens.”

“This cluster of negative health behaviours was something I saw first-hand in schools, and I thought, this is an area where I could have a positive impact.”

One of the major aims of the 20-week ATLAS program was to reduce recreational screen-time – the recommended daily limit of which is two hours. But the researchers also measured body composition, physical activity and muscular fitness, consumption of sugary drinks and indicators of mental health.

“We saw a difference of 30 minutes of screen-time per day between boys who undertook the program and those allocated to the control group, which was maintained 10 months after the program ended”.

“Our findings highlight the drastic changes in sedentary screen viewing that occur during early adolescence, and stress the need for effective programs that can help to stem this rise”.

“We also found that boys who reduced their screen-time experienced improvements in psychological wellbeing, which in the current era of screen-media technology is a really important finding.”

Another great outcome of the research was the boys’ development and retention of resistance training movement skills.

“A core part of the program was teaching boys how to perform resistance training exercises safely and correctly, and we know from previous research that feeling confident in your physical abilities has a large impact on your motivation and intentions to continue that activity.”

“We were really happy about this finding, because it ties in nicely with the concept of physical literacy, which suggests that young people need more than just opportunities to be active. They also need to develop skills, confidence and motivation if they are going to be active for life.”

That initial research project was part of an effectiveness study designed to test the ‘real world’ feasibility of the approach. Following its success however, Jordan and the research team are now working in partnership with the Department of Education to roll out the program in high schools across the state, alongside a similar program for teen girls.

“A really important part of our approach is that we train teachers to deliver the programs – there’s no way to have an impact at scale if researchers go out and deliver things all the time”.

“If we want sustainability and to have a broader impact on the health and wellbeing of young people, we need to think of ways these programs can live on when we step away from them.”

Burn 2 Learn

Supported by the NHMRC, Jordan will soon begin work on a new project led by UON’s Professor David Lubans. The ‘Burn 2 Learn’ project involves working with senior school students to help improve not just their physical health, but also their cognitive and mental health.

“Most people know exercise is good for your mental health, but we really don't know for sure how exercise confers these benefits.”

Unlike grade 7-10 students who have mandatory Physical Education, senior students usually don’t have any planned physical activity during the school week. Ironically, these students are among those who could stand to benefit most from regular physical activity opportunities at school.

“They have exam stress, major life changes that are happening, friendships and romantic relationships to manage, all while juggling a busy work and study schedule.”

“With all this going on, it’s probably no surprise we see dramatic increases in the prevalence of mental health problems in this age group. And it certainly doesn’t help that we remove planned physical activity from their week, as exercise is a proven strategy for dealing with stress.”

To satisfy the needs of this time-poor cohort, the ‘Burn 2 Learn’ team will be focusing on the delivery of high intensity interval training, or ‘HIIT’- highly vigorous but short bouts of exercise interspersed by rest periods. There has been strong interest in HIIT in recent years, due to a number of studies showing the substantial health benefits that can be achieved with a very low volume of exercise.

“It certainly raises questions about age-old advice saying you need to pound the pavement for an hour at a time.”

“Emerging research also suggests HIIT may have positive impacts on markers of cognitive and mental health, but there is still a lot that we don’t know”.

The research team has developed a conceptual model illustrating a number of possible explanations for how physical activity improves cognitive and mental health. They’ll be using a range of experimental methods to test their ideas, and have a number of world-class collaborators, local and international, to help guide them through the process.

“It was always important to me that I could say the work I'm doing is having some kind of benefit to others. Working at the intersect of health and education, and trying to develop new and exciting ways of improving the health and wellbeing of young people, has certainly been a rewarding way to do that.”