IPAN team activating Australia’s health

Australians and populations around the world are facing epidemics of inactivity, poor diet and obesity – one of the greatest global health challenges of the current era. Determined to help turn this tide, a team at Deakin has carved a niche as a research leader, influencing policy, practice, and nutrition and physical activity research around the world.

Whether it be working to get children off their seats at school, analysing the diets parents provide their infants, or finding ways to help vulnerable groups, including those on low-incomes or the elderly, to be active and eat healthier food, a team of over 60 researchers at Deakin – around two thirds of whom are women – has attracted national and international attention with its achievements.

Led by Co-Directors Alfred Deakin Professor David Crawford and Alfred Deakin Professor Jo Salmon, the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) has grown from strength to strength since it was originally established as a Strategic Research Centre in 2010. It is now one of Deakin’s four Research Institutes.

IPAN takes a unique, multi-disciplinary approach in its efforts to increase activity levels of all age groups and improve diets, health and quality of life.

“At IPAN we have built up a critical mass of social scientists, physiologists, dietitians, nutritionists, biochemists, epidemiologists, psychologists, geographers and others because we know we need a broad range of expertise to solve these multifaceted problems,” said Professor Salmon.

As well as seeking to help the general population, IPAN researchers are investigating ways to improve health in disadvantaged communities and support healthy ageing. They are also building understanding of the best means to maintain healthy bones and muscles, cognitive and mental health, active workplaces and healthy food policy.

IPAN researchers work closely with key agencies, including government departments, the Heart Foundation, Diabetes Australia and many others, providing a solid evidence base to inform policy directions.

“IPAN has a culture of excellence, of making a real difference and supporting others through ‘capacity building,’” Professor Salmon said.

“It is part of our DNA. In everything we do, we ask, ‘How can we support and develop our less experienced researchers so they can play a role in the future health of Australians?’ This mindset also attracts others with the same values.”

In 2015, four IPAN researchers became the first of five researchers at Deakin ever to be ranked in the top one per cent in the world within their field – as measured by the prestigious Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researcher list.

Three of these Highly Cited Researchers are women who joined Deakin at the beginning of their careers. Alfred Deakin Prof Anna Timperio and Alfred Deakin Prof Salmon were PhD students at Deakin, and Alfred Deakin Prof Kylie Ball joined the University as a Postdoctoral Fellow. The fourth is Alfred Deakin Professor David Crawford, who joined Deakin 18 years ago and can be credited with establishing the foundations of IPAN.

Professor Kylie Ball noted that women in IPAN have brought remarkable research strengths and expertise that have helped catapult the group to its position as a world-class research team.

“We are proud that many of our women are international leaders in their fields, including in disciplines such as physiology and statistics, where women are traditionally particularly under-represented,” she said.

As one example of IPAN’s many initiatives, the Transform-Us! project, led by Professor Jo Salmon, is working to increase children’s activity levels and reduce their sitting time in all Victorian primary schools.

This five-year partnership project has been funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and involves partners such as VicHealth, the Department of Education and Training, Victorian Independent Schools, the Victorian Principals’ Association, and several other bodies. “Reducing the time a child is seated by 30 minutes a day over a two-and-a-half year period can substantially benefit children’s health,” Professor Salmon said.

“Teachers are provided with strategies to incorporate activity during class and homework periods. It could be moving around the room to measure furniture, walking down the street for geography homework, or the myriad other ways they can learn out of their seats.”

Once the program has successfully been embedded in Victoria, Prof Salmon hopes it will become part of routine best practice in all Australian schools.

One of the new generation of IPAN researchers, NHMRC Early Career Fellow Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng is researching the growth pattern of Australian infants to identify the dietary causes of too-rapid growth during infancy and early childhood and subsequent increased risk for childhood obesity.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) global estimates report that 41 million children aged five years and under were overweight or obese in 2014,” said Dr Zheng.

“Our study findings will inform future revisions to guidelines including the NHMRC’s Australian Infant Feeding Guidelines and Australian Dietary Guidelines, as well as reviews of infant formula and baby food composition standards.”

Researching the other end of the lifespan, Associate Professor Sarah McNaughton, an NHMRC Career Development Fellow, is investigating diet and physical activity during retirement. Funded by the Australian Research Council, the “Wellbeing, Eating and Exercise for a Long Life (WELL) Study” is a longitudinal study of around 4000 adults aged over 55 years, who live in Victoria.

WELL is seeking to identify factors that influence nutrition and physical activity behaviours in this age group, as well as investigating the impact of lifestyle factors on cardiovascular risk factors, cognitive function and depression. It will provide evidence for more effective policies and programs to promote healthy ageing.

This is an equally important target group, given the current ageing population in Australia and projections for ageing populations internationally.

A voice for women

One of IPAN’s most successful women researchers, Professor Kylie Ball, plays a key role in mentoring and developing early- and mid-career researchers and is passionate about gender equity in research.

A Highly Cited Researcher and one of only three of Deakin’s elected Fellows of the newly established Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, Professor Ball said she has had her own challenges to overcome. These included trying to manage multiple large research projects whilst on maternity leave or working part-time, and, at times, being the sole female voice on research review panels advocating for gender equity. Nonetheless, she is delighted to be sharing the lessons of her experience.

“With the recognition I have received, I am most excited to have a voice and the opportunity to promote health and medical research that will benefit Australia and the world,” she said.

“In regards to women, it is terrific that there are so many women researchers at IPAN, although there is still an imbalance at more senior levels. I am committed to helping redress that by encouraging others and acting as a role model.

“To help address the many challenges that women face, role models and mentoring can make a difference, but there is a broader need to realise that women are still primarily responsible for the majority of household work, especially when there are children.

“In Higher Education, we still need more flexible options for women, such as more family-friendly meeting and working hours and holiday times. For instance, the major research grant application season, one of our busiest times of year, falls in the summer school holiday period. These types of issues need to be considered across the sector and in society more broadly for women to achieve true equality.”