The University of Newcastle, Australia

Move it, eat it

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The message from the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition's tight-knit team is simple - 'eat better and move more often' - however doing this is harder than it sounds

The Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition has excelled in a very short time. Established in December 2010, its output to relative opportunity is something to be admired.

Most recently, it headlined the Scopus Young Researcher of the Year Awards, with two academics recognised for their outstanding contributions to public health research in Australasia. The Centre's Associate Professor David Lubans received honours in the Humanities and Social Sciences division for his leadership in school-based interventions to increase physical activity and reduce sedentary behavior in children and adolescents, and Dr Tracy Burrows took out first prize in the Medicine and Medical Sciences category for her research into diet, child obesity and whether food addiction is a neural condition that can be measured by MRI. Of note is that the Centre Deputy Director, Professor Phil Morgan was the recipient of a Scopus award two years ago for his work on physical activity interventions related to obesity.

Team players

Other collaborators at the Centre are just as 'enthusiastic and hard-working' according to Founding Director, Professor Ron Plotnikoff, who – like his growing team – is looking to combat the obesity epidemic and associated chronic disease burdens with grit and a generous dose of optimism.

'The work we do is certainly very timely,' he declares.

'When it comes down to it, we're about getting people to eat better and be more physically active.'

Offering a unique interdisciplinary approach to these contemporary lifestyle challenges, the Centre brings together the expertise of education researchers, biomedical experts, exercise physiologists, dietitians, nutrition scientists, and behavioural and public health scientists. Working under the same roof to target multiple 'at risk' populations on multiple levels and within multiple settings, Plotnikoff and co are pushing the boundaries on making significant differences in the public health sphere.

'We're not only trying to change individual behaviours, attitudes and knowledge,' he explains.

'We're also trying to influence the built environment and intervene at the social, organisational and policy levels as well. '

Simultaneously aiming to extend their research and training capacities for the next generation of people coming through, the team supervises over 50 students and young academics at any given time. A mixture of post-doctoral fellows, PhD candidates, junior colleagues, research assistants, and intern placements from Europe and North America, along with a constant flow of visiting professors, the Centre is a vibrant melting pot of knowledge and interests related to public health, physical activity and nutrition.

Leading by example

One of these early career researchers is Heart Foundation Fellow, Mitch Duncan. Teaming up with Plotnikoff to examine the interrelationships between sedentary behaviour, sleep and physical activity, Duncan is working to pinpoint how these three behaviours jointly influence health. He is also looking at innovative ways to help people engage in more healthy behaviours including how the design of offices can be changed to reduce sitting, and using technology to get people moving more and sleeping better. Though the duo's work is still maturing, Plotnikoff affirms there's already enough evidence to suggest workplace inactivity is an increasing public health concern.

'Ideally, we shouldn't be sitting for more than a couple of hours a day,' he asserts.

'People need to move around more and this might mean we need to become more creative in our strategies.'

Giving weight to the old adage 'practice what you preach,' Plotnikoff and his collaborators can be seen pioneering some of these workplace changes – in and out of the Centre. It's not unusual for them to discuss projects on foot.

'We try to walk the talk,' he says.

The team also keeps active by organising social events, that involve activity and healthy food options, and opting for standing desks over traditional seated ones.


A multi-faceted approach

While Duncan and Plotnikoff are equally curious about physical activity and population health, a handful of other specialist team leaders and researchers also contribute to the design of theory-based behaviour change programs. The Centre has six research strands, and each draws on the expertise of scholars from education, health, and science backgrounds.

Professor Phil Morgan heads the Obesity sector, seeking to tailor prevention and treatment programs to different population groups in different settings. One of his most recent efforts was the Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids community-based initiative, interlacing information for fathers on weight loss, nutrition and physical activity, with interactive child play sessions. The intervention was the first of its kind to target overweight dads, and was similarly unique in its encouragement of family role modelling. So much so that it received the 2014 Excellence in Obesity Prevention Award from the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention in Australia. Together with a sizeable research team, Morgan was successful in implementing 15 Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids programs to more than 300 fathers and 500 children in the Hunter region.

Also from the School of Education, and recent recipient of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, Associate Professor David Lubans is the front man for Physical Activity and Nutrition in Schools. The stream is responsible for investigating the impact of school-based interventions on physiological, behavioural, psychological, cognitive and social outcomes in child and adolescent populations.

Deputy Director Professor Clare Collins leads the Centre's Nutrition and Dietetics team. Her cutting edge research is bringing technology innovations to nutrition and dietary intake assessment. Web-based and mobile phone applications are being trialed to help people to eat better and achieve a healthy weight across life stages and medical conditions. Her web-based Healthy Eating Quiz has seen more than 54000 people receive feedback on their eating habits to date Her most recent collaborations are with St Andrews University in Scotland and Baylor College of Medicine in the United States. The stream have conducted systematic reviews on food and health outcomes that informed the 2013 revision of the NHMRC Australian Dietary Guidelines and the 2012 update of the Obesity Management Guidelines for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

Professor Manohar Garg is similarly scientific in his approach, leading the Clinical and Experimental Nutrition team, investigating the role of nutritional supplements and functional foods in meeting dietary recommendations and prevention of non-communicable diseases. He's currently exploring the effects of nutraceuticals and running clinical trials to study the ways in which diets can modulate health determinants, such as blood lipid levels, glycaemic control and inflammation. 

Another School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy recruit, Professor Robin Callister fronts the Centre's Exercise Sciences strand. Spearheading the Healthy Body, Healthy Mind project, she is seeking to determine the effectiveness of regular physical activity as a treatment for young people with depression. Additional research ventures have the team studying the use of regular exercise in stroke recovery, as well as a combination of exercise and nutrition interventions to inhibit the development of Type 2 diabetes in at-risk men.

Other integral Principal Investigators of the Centre include Professor Peter Howe an expert in clinical nutrition and Associate Professor Erica James with expertise in behavioural physical activity and nutrition.

Big challenges and bigger opportunities

Committed to working for and with each other, collaborators from all research sectors are steadily linking these incremental steps to maximise support and promote scalable, translatable and fundable programs. They are four years on in the ATC building but there is no sign of slowing down – or conceding to an almost incurable public health crisis.

'There are a lot of things over the last couple of decades that have made us inactive,' Plotnikoff declares.

'The creature comforts of technology have certainly contributed to our sedentary behaviours, but I believe they might have the ability to motivate us as well.'

Also pointing to the emerging frontiers of science as potential stimuli, the Canadian canvasser is nothing short of enthusiastic when it comes to tackling the mammoth tasks at hand in chronic disease prevention, treatment and wellbeing. Expressly interested in epigenetics, he insists associated health burdens are a costly downfall to be remedied; however they provide a platform for contemporary understanding of these new research techniques.

'Working in these bioscience spaces could be quite exciting down the track,' he notes.

'By mapping individual genetic makeup it's already been shown that some people might be more receptive to particular types of interventions.'

With a nutrient-rich snack in one hand and an iPhone in the other, Plotnikoff is cautious but confident.  

'There's no quick fix,' he states.

'But bringing all of the pieces together and synthesising them, ensuring there are no duplications or things done at random – that is a step in the right direction.'

'Public health models of the not-so-distant future effectively need to be self-calibrating so databases and people can effectively talk to each other.'

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