Dr Craig Duncan
Conjoint Senior Lecturer
School of Environmental and Life Sciences
Could sleep be the missing piece of the weight loss puzzle?
We all know that what we eat and how much we exercise can affect our weight. We also know that sleep quality has a huge impact on our health. But how important is sleep for weight loss? This is the question Associate Professor Mitch Duncan is aiming to answer, and the huge investigation has been a long time coming.
Mitch’s exemplary public health expertise has developed through years of working with some of the best researchers in the business. He was drawn to Newcastle thanks to the stellar reputation of the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition (PRC PAN).
“PRC PAN are known for their high quality research and so I wanted to come here and get involved with their intervention projects,” says Mitch.
Throughout his Health and Human Performance undergraduate degree, Mitch had a number of ideas about what he might like to do in the future. He considered working in education, cardiac rehabilitation or the health and safety sector. But in his final year, his fate was sealed – as part of one of his course requirements, he undertook a workplace placement. The workplace in question? The birthplace of 10,000 Steps – just as the project was kicking off.
The 10,000 Steps project is one of Australia’s greatest public health success stories. The project started at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, and has since attracted more than 350,000 members from all over the world.
“That was where I first got experience in community level intervention research. I just knew, ‘This is for me, this is what I want to do,’” Mitch remembers. He continued working with the project, and also going on to complete his Honours and PhD research. He progressed from work experience student to project leader – and saw a number of changes along the way.
When 10,000 Steps was first conceived, participants were given pedometers and kept a physical log-book of their activity. With the increasing availability and popularity of smart-phones and fitness tracking devices, the project looks very different today. As Mitch witnessed this evolution of technology, he became interested in just how we can use these advances in health research, as well as to encourage physical activity in the general community.
This technology evolution also plays into the PRC PAN’s Move, Eat, Sleep trial, which is funded by Diabetes Australia and the Heart Foundation.
“This project is almost like an amalgamation of a few different interventions that we’ve had along the way.
“What we're now doing is bringing together activity, diet and sleep to ask: what is the added benefit of improving sleep in combination with diet and physical activity?
“We know that people with poor quality sleep tend to lose less weight compared to those with good quality sleep in a standard weight loss trial.
“No one has really tested to see whether improving the sleep of people can help them lose more weight, and keep it off for longer.
“It’s a big project, it’s super exciting!”
The project has been put together by Mitch, his colleagues in the PRC PAN and collaborators from universities across the country. Participants will receive personalised feedback on their health habits throughout the trail via a mobile app, and also in person.
“What we’d like to do is see how these basic lifestyle interventions can work in clinical populations.
“So we’d look at helping people who with diabetes, or people with existing sleep conditions.
“Ideally we’d be able to disseminate these interventions more widely - like we did with 10,000 Steps.”
Mitch has also been recognised for his work with the community – not just in disseminating health intervention strategies, but in communicating health research to the general public. In 2010, Mitch was presented with a Young Tall Poppy Award in recognition of his outstanding research and communications achievements. He was also a selected speaker for the international 2017 Pint of Science festival.
UON Associate Professor Mitch Duncan is investigating how important sleep is for weight loss.