The University of Newcastle, Australia

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.

Phil Morgan in the gym 

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."

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