The University of Newcastle, Australia

A sporting chance at science

Dr Nattai Borges found the perfect way to combine a love of sport with a fascination for science – and the Central Coast campus is the beneficiary.

It’s not often that you can combine two disparate passions into one career path, but Nattai has managed to achieve just that. With a love for science sparked in early high school, and a life-long sporting background it’s no wonder that Nattai was drawn to Exercise and Sports Science.

“At the time the other potential study options were physiotherapy or medicine, but Exercise and Sports Science was perfect for me,” Nattai says. “I’m glad I found it.”

Nattai practices what he preaches, ensuring he spends time working in industry along with teaching and researching. “This way I can ensure that I never lose the vision of ‘well, this is the science, but how can we apply that science and make it more meaningful to the general population, the athletic population and the disease-state population?”

“I like to bridge the division between the mechanistic ‘bench science’ of exercise physiology and the more translational applied research,” Nattai says. “Human physiology is such a complex and continually interchanging environment. If we ask ‘What causes fatigue during exercise?’ there’s no simple answer.”

Having worked as an accredited exercise physiologist  in the muscular-skeletal rehab area, Nattai has an anatomical insight into sports science and the role that exercise plays in wellbeing. “I’ve also worked as a strength and conditioning coach for a number of sporting teams and in private clinics working with young athletes,” Nattai says. “It’s been fun and has given me a really applied background that can help make the theory I’m teaching be more practical for my students. They really respond well to it.”

This has also given Nattai insight into the strength and conditioning and applied sport science areas. “This insight has led me to perform research into understanding match demands of sports such as basketball and cricket and monitoring hydration status in rugby union,” says Nattai.

Ageing and exercise

Exploring the role that exercise plays in maintaining health and fitness as we age is one of Nattai’s research focuses, but one challenge is to accurately measure the impact of physical activity on ageing. “As we get older and busier (during our twenties and thirties!) our levels of physical activity tend to drop, so if we study sedentary older and younger people we’re not really factoring for that drop in physical activity. But if we look at two groups of people who’ve maintained physical activity we gain real insight.”

In his research Nattai’s been comparing master’s athletes with younger athletes to garner a better understanding of what the actual ageing process is, by factoring in the impact of maintaining fitness.

“It’s an emerging field of research at the moment,” Nattai says. “Mainly because there aren’t that many Masters Athletes to work with, and these athletes tend to focus on endurance sports. But what we’ve seen so far shows that if you keep exercising, you can keep performing. It shows the adaptability of the body as you age.”

However, Nattai stresses that we also need to examine the role of nutrition in fitness and ageing. “Older people tend not to digest protein as well, so their ability to synthesise new muscles is impacted. Consuming high-quality protein is also important to help mitigate health risks.”

Muscles matter

As we age, there is a decrease in muscle mass known as sarcopenia, especially in our power-based muscle fibres or type-2 muscles fibres. “We need to explore whether we should be focussing on different types of training which maintain our type-2 muscle fibres. We know that endurance training doesn’t help maintain our power-based muscle, we need to focus on resistance training, plyometric training and to also focus on nutrition alongside training.”

Nattai stresses that it’s not just from an exercise perspective that we need to focus on muscle mass as we age – it’s also important from a quality-of-life perspective: “Muscles are one of our largest organs and one of the most important,” Nattai says. “We’re only starting to scratch the surface in terms of the signalling role that muscles play with hormones and the maintenance of our muscle mass.”

Acting local, thinking global

Working with Central Coast sporting groups is just one of the ways that Nattai is looking to connect his research with locals. “I bring the lessons learned from playing in team sports into all aspects of my life,” Nattai says.

“I’m aiming to work with local sporting teams here on the central coast to help bring the knowledge from the University into our sporting clubs,” says Nattai who’s currently playing with the local Avoca FC.

Exploring the link between fitness and wellbeing is also on Nattai’s radar, and he’s actively seeking industry collaborations to apply his research in the field. “An emerging theme in research is the role that exercise can play in managing the symptoms and side-effects of cancer. Research seems to indicate that there are some potential benefits of combining certain types of exercise with treatment – and it’s an area I’d like to explore.”

A proficient science communicator, Nattai has already received an International accolade for his oral presentation skills while undertaking his PhD. “In 2016 I won a prestigious international award at the European Congress of Sports Scientist,” Nattai proudly states. “I was selected in the top 4 before being asked to perform before the whole congress where I was awarded the Young Investigators Award.”

At this congress in Vienna, Nattai spoke to global professionals about one of his PhD projects which researched the effects of age on pulmonary and muscular oxygenation following high intensity training. And Nattai feels that his work in this space hasn’t concluded now he’s been awarded his PhD. “I’d love to keep developing the work I did in my PhD and explore healthy ageing and exercise and the benefits for the ageing Australian population.”