Global estimates show that one in four adults and more than three-quarters of adolescents do not meet the recommendations for aerobic activity.
In Australia, only 20% of children meet the 24-hour movement guidelines and more than 30% of adults are physically inactive and have poor sleep.
Staying active regularly is essential for good physical and mental health and wellbeing. This is true no matter how young or old you are. Equally, quality sleep benefits your mental health and emotional well-being and supports your physical body to stay healthy and well. This applies across the entire lifespan from childhood, to adolescence, adulthood, and old age.
Regular physical activity and quality sleep both play a key role in the prevention and management of premature mortality and numerous health problems including:
Type 2 diabetes
mental and cognitive health problems
Physical activity also benefits sleep, musculoskeletal and reproductive health problems and helps to prevent falls and fall-related injuries, declines in bone health and improves the ability to carry out daily tasks in the older population.
Further, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, regular physical activity has been shown to have a protective effect against respiratory illnesses and viruses, as well as enhance the effectiveness of vaccinations. Getting a good night’s sleep supports healthy brain function, which means better decision making and improved concentration, capacity for learning and ability to carry out daily tasks.
Research Innovations and Discovery
Our research aims to improve the health and wellbeing of the community through the promotion of healthy sleep habits and active lifestyles that include increased physical activity and decreased time spent sitting/lying down and on screens.
Our three-step approach to achieving this is:
Developing and testing ‘cutting edge’ programs that focus on the prevention and treatment of health issues arising from physical inactivity, sedentary behaviour and poor sleep.
Using the findings to generate and communicate new knowledge to the community about the physical, mental, and cognitive benefits of physical activity and quality sleep.
Developing practical solutions for the general public and health practitioners on ways to increase physical activity and improve sleep, as well as feeding into government policy.
Our unique approach is based on our extensive array of diverse and successful partnerships with industry, Non-Government Organisations (such as the Heart Foundation, and Cancer Council); Sporting Organisations (state and national bodies), and Government (local and state) and international partners.
Over many years, our researchers have developed these quality partnerships that have led to a two-way relationship in designing research based on the needs of the community, ensuring new knowledge is communicated broadly and that those research outcomes are implemented directly into school, community and public health settings.
Current Active Living Research Program projects are spread across a range of settings including schools, families, communities, workplaces, clinical settings and sporting organisations. We are also extending the reach of our existing research into regional and rural communities and with vulnerable populations including Indigenous Australians & those with disabilities.
Our Active Living Research Program is comprised of 4 research themes:
Clinical Research Theme
Therapeutic exercise for health and disease - led by Dr Emily Cox
Our research uses exercise to prevent and manage chronic disease and injuries, to improve health and quality of life across the lifespan. Our projects are improving the lives of people with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart and lung disease, chronic pain, and mental health conditions, as well as those with muscle and joint injuries and during pregnancy.
Projects in the Clinical research theme include:
Exercise for Type 2 Diabetes and Long-COVID (Diabetes Australia funded, led by Dr Emily Cox) This project aims to enhance the prescription and delivery of exercise to people with type 2 diabetes and long-COVID symptoms (e.g., shortness of breath, fatigue) to allow return to, or uptake of, regular exercise.
The program compares the safety and efficacy of a long-COVID symptom guided approach to exercise prescription with usual care (i.e., following the current exercise guidelines for type 2 diabetes), after eight weeks. It is being conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Newcastle, Hunter Medical Research Institute Asthma & Breathing Program, John Hunter Hospital and The University of Queensland.
High-Intensity Interval Training for People with Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (CRE Digestive Health funded, led by Dr Emily Cox) This is the first trial to investigate the use of combined aerobic and resistance high-intensity interval training in people with functional gastrointestinal disorders.
Outcomes include gastrointestinal symptom severity, inflammation, gut microbiome composition and function, quality of life, cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, and strength. This project is being conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Newcastle, Centre for Research Excellence in Digestive Health at the Hunter Medical Research Institute, and The University of Queensland.
Balance for Health (led by Professor Suzanne Snodgrass) Did you know balance ability begins to decline from around age 30? Poor balance (not being able to stand on one foot for 10-15 seconds) at age 50 is linked to a higher risk of falls and death from all causes within a decade, and poor balance in those aged 65+ has been linked to an increased risk of dementia. The good news is that participating in physical activity in middle age can delay the onset of age-related disability by 15 years, and reduce the risk of falls and dementia.
This project aims to prevent balance and cognitive decline through physical activity. We are conducting laboratory studies to better understand common balance problems in middle age. We will develop targeted exercise programs for people in middle age to reduce their risks for future falls and dementia, ultimately to intervene early to slow the ageing process.
Posture exercise for neck pain (led by Professor Suzanne Snodgrass) Poor posture and movement (or lack of movement) are linked to chronic pain. Exercise and incidental movement help to reduce pain. This project is developing a new intervention strategy to reduce chronic neck pain in office workers, focussed on improving posture and reducing sedentary behaviour in the workplace. This includes a measurement tool to quantify 3D kinematics in real-world environments outside the laboratory.
Breathing exercise for chronic pain (led by Professor Suzanne Snodgrass) Did you know most of us breathe about twenty thousand times a day? People with chronic pain are at risk of developing a shallow and disordered breathing pattern, which might contribute to ongoing pain and depressive symptoms. Teaching people with chronic pain to improve their breathing is beneficial, but access to pain services is a barrier for many people with chronic pain, especially those living in rural areas.
This project will evaluate the effectiveness of breathing training for people with chronic pain delivered as an online group by an allied health professional. Ultimately, we hope to provide evidence for an accessible and effective self-management program to reduce the burden of chronic pain on individuals and their families.
Dance for Health and Well-being (led by Dr Annie Jeffries) Physical activity has been positively associated with psychological wellbeing in both children and adults, particularly constructs such as self-concept, self-esteem, and self-worth.
Previous research suggests the importance of these concepts, as a protective factor and a non-specific risk factor in physical and mental health. Therefore, the first phase of this project is to develop a dance physical activity intervention to improve mental health specifically self-esteem, self-worth, and quality of life in young females aged 13-19 years. The second phase of this study is to examine the feasibility of a dance physical activity intervention and assess recruitment and retention, intervention adherence, acceptability of the intervention, and feasibility of collecting outcomes to assess clinical effectiveness. It is being conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Newcastle.
Physical activity during pregnancy for child brain and mental health (Hunter Children's Research Foundation, led by Dr Sarah Valkenborghs) In Australia, 1 in 7 children are diagnosed annually with a mental health condition. These conditions can be life-long and increase the risk of secondary disorders in later life. This represents an $11b annual burden on the economy and an adverse impact on patient and family wellbeing. The challenge of identifying those at risk of developing these disorders begins antenatally.
Risk factors for poor fetal brain development and child mental health after birth include poor maternal mental, cardiovascular, metabolic, and sleep health. These risk factors can all be improved through increased physical activity, and we believe that physical activity during pregnancy may have downstream benefits on the child’s brain and mental health. The Intergenerational effects of Maternal Physical Activity on Child developmenT (IMPACT) project is investigating if physical activity while pregnant is beneficial for fetal brain development in-utero and child neurodevelopment after birth. Given that only 1 in 3 pregnant women meet physical activity guidelines, we hope that by identifying the child brain and mental health benefits, we might motivate more women to be active – in the same way that pregnant women alter their diet, stop smoking and consuming alcohol.
Community Research Theme
Led by Associate Professor Narelle Eather & Professor Mitch Duncan
The research conducted by members of the Community research theme is focussed on designing and testing physical activity and population health interventions for the prevention and management of chronic diseases, as well as the promotion of healthy body weight, physical skills and fitness, mental health and optimal wellbeing.
This research is conducted across a range of groups and various population settings including workplaces, clinics, sporting organisations and the community at large. The interventions are delivered in a number of different formats including digital technology, telephone and face to face.
Projects in the Community research theme include:
Ecofit (NHMRC partnership funded, led by Professor Ron Plotnikoff) This program led by Professor Ron Plotnikoff in partnership with Newcastle and Lake Macquarie Councils, aims to increase physical activity levels through the use of local parks and outdoor gym facilities. It includes the use of a smartphone app, a group training session and a health check.
MASTER Coaching (led by A/Prof Narelle Eather) Our research team are advocating for a better way of coaching sport through providing community sport coaches access to an educative and evidenced-based program (called MASTER Coaching) that suitably prepares them to confidently design and deliver high quality and enjoyable sporting programs for athletes.
Skateboarding to Health (led by A/Prof Narelle Eather) The Skateboarding to Health study is a novel research project which stems from the increasing popularity of skateboarding as a sport (recently included at the Tokyo Olympics), and recreational/cultural pursuit amongst youth and adults.
Participation in recreational physical activities, and individual and team sports have shown to be beneficial to physical, social, psychological, and cognitive health outcomes. These benefits span across different activities and sports, and sub-populations (including youth, adults, older adults, males, and females). An increased understanding of barriers and facilitators to participation in skateboarding will help inform targeted strategies for increasing participation in skateboarding, and the inclusion of skateboarding as a tool for improving a range of outcomes amongst youth.
Creating Positive Sporting Environments (led by A/Prof Narelle Eather) Participation in sport is beneficial for physical, social, mental, and cognitive health. At all levels of sport, positive sporting experiences may help maximise a player’s development, enjoyment and success, and retention in sport.
A/Professor Narelle Eather is conducting a number of research projects looking at the factors which influence sports participation in our communities, especially amongst young people.The latest project is looking at inclusive netball uniforms.
Balanced - Improving activity-sleep patterns to enhance glucose control in higher risk mid aged adults (MRFF funded, led by Professor Mitch Duncan) There is a lack of evidence for the impact of interventions targeting improvements in both activity and sleep to reduce chronic disease risk. Using a 3-arm Randomised Control Trial (RCT) this project will test the efficacy of a novel digital physical activity and sleep health intervention –Balanced– to maximise improvements glucose control among mid aged adults (45-64 years) who are physically inactive and have poor sleep health relative to a physical activity only intervention and a control group.
Sitting and Sleepy Project (funded by ARC, led by Professor Mitch Duncan) Prolonged sitting and inadequate sleep are a growing concern in society and are associated with impairments to cardiometabolic health and cognitive performance. However, the combined effect of prolonged sitting and inadequate sleep on measures of health and cognitive performance is unknown. In addition, the circadian disruption caused by shift work may further impact workers’ cardiometabolic health and cognitive performance.
The Sitting and Sleepy Project uses a laboratory experimental protocol to manipulate adult's activity level (prolonged sitting vs regular activity breaks), sleep duration (5 hr sleep vs 9 hr sleep opportunity) and circadian disruption (dayshift vs night shift). Participants live in the sleep lab at CQUni for 7 days and complete a 5-day experimental protocol that manipulates different combinations of their activity level, sleep duration and circadian disruption and examines the impact this has on glucose control. This project provides world-leading evidence for the potential of physical activity to offset the ill effects of short sleep and/or shift work; this is key for the millions of adults with high levels of sitting and poor sleep, and who are shift workers.
Helping colorectal cancer survivors at risk of cardiovascular disease (funded by World Cancer Research Fund & Cancer Australia, led by Professor Mitch Duncan) Professor Duncan leds a team of an international team of researchers to co-create an intervention with colorectal cancer survivors at high risk of cardiovascular disease to improve their physical activity, diet and sleep. Read more about it here.
SHED-IT: Recharge study (HMRI-funded, led by Dr Myles Young) Thsi study tested the efficacy of an online lifestyle program targeting depression and weight loss in men. It was adapted from the evidence-based SHED-IT Weight Loss Program for men to include additional support to help men improve their mental (as well as physical) fitness.
Although the 3-month program was completely self-guided, men in the intervention group lost an average of 3.3 kg after completing the intervention and reduced their depressive symptoms by 46%. These changes were significantly greater than those observed in a wait-list control group and were maintained at a 6-month follow-up. Additional analyses revealed that the improvement in men’s moderate to vigorous physical activity during the program was a driving force behind the men’s improved mental health, among other improvements to lifestyle and thinking behaviours. This study confirmed that integrated online interventions targeting men’s physical and mental health can play a key role in preventing and treating depression in men.
Workplace POWER (led by Professor Philip Morgan) This study targets men in the workplace. Using gender-tailored resources, the program has helped hundreds of blokes across Australia improve their lifestyles, including employees of QLD Police, Daracon, TransGrid, Ampcontrol and Tomago Aluminium. In 2013, the program received the inaugural National Preventative Health Award for the best initiative in Workplace Health and Well-being for large workplaces.
10,000 steps program Professor Mitch Duncan was involved in the team that set up the 10,000 steps program in Australia and introduced the program to the University of Newcastle. The program challenges participants and their colleagues to increase their daily step count by using a team-based workplace challenge. Learn more about the program here.
WorkHIIT pilot trial Participants in a workplace-based High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) study felt better, slept better and were more motivated and fitter after just eight weeks, physical activity researchers from the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute have found.
The ‘WorkHIIT’ pilot trial enlisted almost 50 UON staff members with predominantly sedentary office jobs, many of whom were sitting for much of the day. Half of the group underwent two to three HIIT sessions of 10 minutes duration per week for the eight weeks, while the remainder continued their normal routines. Various themed sessions – Office-HIIT, Work-HIIT and Sport-HIIT – were run, involving combinations of aerobic (shuttles, skips, bear walks) and resistance (push-ups, squats, sit-ups) exercises using either body weight or basic sports equipment, interspersed with short rest periods.
Monitoring showed that the workout participants reached and maintained above-target intensity levels for heart rate (>85 per cent average) and reported feeling better immediately after their short bout of high-intensity activity. There were also significant benefits for muscular fitness, weekday sleep and motivation to exercise. These findings may have important implications for health and lifelong participation in physical activity.
The Daughters and Dads Active and Empowered (HMRI-funded, led by Professor Philip Morgan) This program empowers fathers as agents of change in their daughters’ lives. The program is the first ever to target the father-daughter relationship as a novel engagement mechanism to improve social-emotional wellbeing and physical activity in girls. Almost 2,500 daughters and dads have participated in the program since 2015. A collaboration with Women in Sport-UK and English Premier League Football clubs (2019-2021) also saw the program delivered in England to over 400 daughters and dads, while the Vienna Sport-Union are delivering the program to Austrian families (2022-2024).
In 2019, the NSW Minister for Sport announced $2.4 million of funding to disseminate 'Daughters and Dads Active and Empowered' across NSW in collaboration with the Office of Sport and develop sport-specific adaptions with leading sports organisations. The first of these sport-specific adaptations, 'Daughters & Dads Cricket' was delivered in collaboration with Cricket NSW and Cricket Australia in 2020. This program is now being rolled out nationally, in partnership with Cricket Australia. Daughters & Dads Basketball was developed in 2021 and will be delivered across NSW in partnership with Basketball NSW, while Daughters & Dads Football is in development during 2022.
Daughters and Dads Active and Empowered won the Australasian Green Gown Award in the category of ‘Benefiting Society’ in 2020 and received a ‘Highly Commended’ recognition in the same category at the International Green Gown Awards in 2021. Open to universities and colleges across the world, the International Green Gown Awards recognises the ‘powerful and innovative ways education institutions are benefiting the lives of individuals, communities and wider society.’
Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids (led by Professor Philip Morgan): This program has been widely applauded for its innovative approach and impressive outcomes, receiving multiple prestigious awards including an 'Excellence in Obesity Prevention Award' from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Following this success, the program has now been adapted, trialled and delivered to communities in the UK and Hispanic families in the USA. Projects are also underway to adapt the program for incarcerated fathers in Scottish prisons in partnership with the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Prison Service, to expand the Hispanic HDHK program in the USA, and to evaluate an adapted program for German families in collaboration with the Leibniz Institute in Germany. In 2021, the program was been awarded funding from the Heart Foundation to tailor the program for Indigenous Australian families.
Healthy Youngsters, Healthy Dads(led by Professor Philip Morgan) This world-first program targets fathers and their preschool-aged children to improve physical activity and nutrition. The program teaches fathers effective parenting skills for role modelling a healthy lifestyle to optimise the health and wellbeing of their pre-school-aged children. Over 220 families have participated in this ground-breaking program in the Newcastle region to date.
Schools Research Theme
Led by Professor David Lubans
The strong relationship between Professor David Lubans and the NSW Department of Education over many years has led to school-based interventions designed to promote physical activity and improve fitness and well-being in young people being rolled out in primary and secondary schools throughout the state.
Projects in the Schools research theme include:
Learning to Lead(ARC-funded 2022-24, led by Professor David Lubans) This innovative project aims to investigate the direct and indirect effects of a school-based leadership program for primary school-aged children. Schools are ideal settings for developing children’s leadership effectiveness, but there are few examples of evidence-based programs guided by leadership theory. This project generates new knowledge about the importance of leadership skills for students’ self-efficacy, classroom behaviour, and teachers’ well-being and work-related stress.
Expected outcomes of this inter-disciplinary project include a framework for understanding how children’s leadership behaviours shape school culture and an evidence-based program for dissemination in Australian schools.
Burn 2 Learn (NHMRC-funded 2017-20, led by Professor David Lubans) Burn 2 Learn is a school-based physical activity program, designed to improve fitness, support wellbeing and enhance academic achievement among senior school students.
Burn 2 Learn adapted(MRFF funded 2021-24, led by Professor David Lubans) Adolescents with disability are less physically active and more likely to have co-occurring chronic health conditions than their typically developing peers. Schools are ideal settings to address the physical activity decline that typically occurs during adolescence, but youth with a disability have been largely neglected in school-based health promotion efforts. The aim of this project is to assess the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a time-efficient school-based physical activity intervention for adolescents with disability. We designed and pilot tested the Burn 2 Learn adapted (B2La) program in partnership with the NSW DoE and Special Olympic Australia.
The program promotes participation in vigorous-intensity aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise breaks that are delivered during school hours as well as participation in lifestyle physical activity outside of school. It represents a new opportunity for adolescents with a disability to be physically active at school. It's also designed to enhance adolescents’ physical literacy (i.e., motivation, skills, knowledge and confidence) to support their participation in physical activity once they leave school.
Resistance Training for Teens (NHMRC Partnership funded 2021-23, led by Professor David Lubans) Physical inactivity is a global problem due to its high prevalence and resulting health, economic, and social consequences. National guidelines recommend that children and adolescents accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) every day and participate in muscle-strengthening activities (e.g., resistance training) on three or more days per week.
Less than 2% of Australian adolescents meet both the MVPA and muscle-strengthening guidelines. The aim of this project is to assess the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of different implementation strategies to support the dissemination of the evidence-based ‘Resistance Training for Teens’ (RT for Teens) program.
In our effectiveness study, we demonstrated that the RT for Teens intervention improved adolescents’ muscular fitness, body composition and resistance training technique. In our subsequent dissemination study, we observed considerable variability in program delivery and numerous barriers to implementation, such as lack of time and support from school leaders. The aim of this new study is to assess the effect of three support models (i.e., Low, Moderate and High) on the implementation (i.e., reach, effectiveness, dose delivered, fidelity, adoption, sustainability, impact and cost) of the RT for Teens program in NSW schools.
Thinking while Moving (funded by the NSW Department of Education, led by Dr Nick Riley) This studyinvestigates the use of movement-based learning in primary schools to improve children's daily school time physical activity levels, their engagement and 'on task' behaviour in Mathematics and English.
EMU (Education, Movement and Understanding) (HMRI funded, led by Associate Professor Narelle Eather) This community-based Indigenous games program targets health and well-being, literacy and cultural appreciation in children and their families. Initial results from the program indicate that improvements were observed in children’s cardiorespiratory fitness, enjoyment of sport, physical self-perceptions and academic achievement.
Impact of research projects
Our NSW Office of Sport Workshop informed government policy to increase female participation in sports and led to the rollout of the DADAE program in NSW. Read more about it here.
Our research informed several national standards and practice guidelines:
Guideline Development Group for the Australian 24-hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Young People, and
Working Group Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People
Several of our programs became commercially successful, including:
The Queensland Police trained in the delivery of our Workplace POWER weight loss program and delivery of the program to employees in their organisation. The purchase of the program resources was available through the UON website, and
The SHED–IT weight loss program is also available for purchase through the UON website.
In the ARC Research Engagement and Impact Assessment (2018), several of our case studies were rated as 'highly engaging', including:
Resistance Training for Teens (Prof. David Lubans)
Thinking While Moving in Maths, and
Daughter and Dads Exercising and Empowered (Prof. Philip Morgan).
2021: Received a ‘Highly Commended’ recognition in the same category at the International Green Gown Awards in 2021. Open to universities and colleges across the world, the International Green Gown Awards recognise the ‘powerful and innovative ways education institutions are benefiting the lives of individuals, communities and wider society.’
Outstanding team of researchers
2021: HMRI Research Team Award This award recognises an outstanding team of researchers who have collectively demonstrated excellence in health and medical research for the wellbeing of our communities.
2021: Winner of the Work Integrated Learning Staff Member of the Year (Prof. Philip Morgan for Daughters and Dads course). This Award celebrates the professional learning experiences and partnerships that prepare UON students for success. It is in recognition of outstanding achievement in the delivery of meaningful and consequential Work Integrated Learning experiences for UON students.
Feedback from judges: “This year, Professor Philip Morgan has been awarded the Work Integrated Learning Staff Member of the Year for his Daughters and Dads Active and Empowered program. The program, a first of its kind, calls on fathers to improve their daughter’s wellbeing through optimising child health, gender equity, parental relationships, community engagement and more. Importantly, the program offers hands-on training to pre-service teachers, profoundly impacting the development of their teaching practices. The initiative has received widespread recognition and the course was the highest rated by students studying at the University of Newcastle in 2020. Hundreds of pre-service teachers have trained in the program, creating far-reaching educational and community benefits. Without Professor Philip Morgan, none of this would’ve been possible and we congratulate him on this amazing achievement
The IMPACT study: The Intergenerational effects of Maternal Physical Activity on Child Development
Dr Sarah Valkenborghs
Dr Sarah Valkenborghs from the HMRI Active Living Research Program has received a grant to fund her study in child neurodevelopment, investigating if physical activity while pregnant is beneficial for child neurodevelopment after birth.