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Dr Sarah Valkenborghs

Dr Sarah Valkenborghs
Project Grant
2022 Project Grant

What are your research interests?

Clinical Exercise Science 

Despite the known health benefits of exercise, the use of exercise as a treatment for chronic disease is incredibly underutilised across the board. Often patients (and even clinicians!) admit to being afraid of exercising with a clinical condition. To me, this is a classic case of a “fear of the unknown”. 

My main passion is researching the effects of exercise in clinical populations which includes looking at how it can be used as a treatment (a concept becoming known as “exercise is medicine”), how the effects may differ from those of a “healthy” population, as well as how we can adapt exercise to suit people with varying physical abilities and comorbidities. Currently my main research areas are:

  • How different intensities of exercise affect airway inflammation in asthmatics?
  • Can people who cannot walk independently after stroke do aerobic interval training?
  • Can we use leg cycling exercise to improve hand and arm function in stroke survivors by boosting their brain activity and recovery?
  • Can exercise boost blood flow to tumours to help deliver more of the drug?
  • What are the effects of resistance (weights) training, moderate intensity continuous training and high intensity interval training in Type 1 Diabetics? 

Exercise-induced neuroplasticity

As well as looking at how exercise improves brain activity and recovery after stroke, I enjoy looking at how we can use exercise to improve and preserve our brain function across the lifespan both in terms of cognition as well as mental health such as depression, stress, etc.  

Some of the research I do examines the effects of physical activity and fitness on brain structure and function in kids and teens. I am also soon to be involved with the very exciting Burn2Learn trial, which is investigating if high intensity interval training in schools can improve the cognitive function of year 11 students as well as improve their fitness and reduce their stress. 

Why did you get into research?

While studying to be a doctor and working part-time as an exercise instructor, I was incredibly mind-blown and frustrated by the lack of understanding and, therefore, prescription of exercise and physical activity in the prevention and treatment of clinical conditions. It seemed obvious that if a person presented with cardiovascular risk factors such as cholesterol or high blood pressure, instead of putting them on medications that have side-effects and cost the government money, we could use the money to prescribe them suitable supervised (and eventually unsupervised) exercise.

Exercise could not only address their current health problems, but even prevent future health problems that may be related (and more serious) such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as prevent unrelated health problems such as cognitive decline, depression, obesity and more! It was something I was really passionate about so I decided to abandon medical school and start a PhD researching clinical exercise science instead.

What would be the ultimate goal for your research?

My ultimate goal is to produce the evidence needed to unequivocally show which types of exercise are safe and beneficial for people with clinical conditions so that they can be prescribed exercise as a substitute or supplement to drug therapies. It’s a tall order, because not only do I need to produce the evidence, I think I will need to change a lot of mindsets and do a lot of myth-busting because right now there are a lot of misconceptions about exercising if you have a clinical condition.


Dr Sarah Valkenborghs holds a PhD in Human Physiology from the University of Newcastle under the supervision of Prof. Robin Callister, Prof. Michael Nilsson, and Prof. Paulette van Vliet, and in collaboration with Prof. Kirk Erickson (University of Pittsburgh, United States). Her main research interests are the use of exercise in the treatment of chronic disease and the effects of exercise on the brain.

Future Focus

My dream is for exercise prescription and fitness/physical activity screening to be part of routine clinical practice, so that people can become healthier and happier without having to take a cocktail of drugs and struggle with side effects.

Specialised/Technical Skills

  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Clinical Exercise Physiology
  • Diabetes
  • Exercise Testing
  • Exercise Training
  • Neuroplasticity
  • Physical Activity
  • Rehabilitation
  • Stroke



ABC Newcastle interview with Kia Handley - 16 April 2019


The IMPACT study: The Intergenerational effects of Maternal Physical Activity on Child Development
Project Grant

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.