Physical activity, public park design and monitoring the pricing of unhealthy food will all be explored in Deakin-led research projects awarded funding from the Heart Foundation.
Deakin University has received two Future Leader Fellowships and a Vanguard grant in the recent round of Heart Foundation funding for cardiovascular research.
Dr Jenny Veitch and Dr Nicky Ridgers from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) both received four-year Future Leader Fellowships, while Dr Kathryn Backholer from the Centre for Population Health Research’s (CPHR) Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) was awarded a Vanguard grant.
According to the Heart Foundation, Future Leader Fellowships “support the best and brightest cardiovascular researchers as they build their research capacity and become leaders of research groups”.
“These are nationally competitive and highly prestigious awards aimed at mid-career researchers doing research to promote heart health. This outcome is particularly pleasing, because both Dr Veitch and Dr Ridgers are 'home grown' Deakin researchers,” said IPAN co-director Professor David Crawford.
“Dr Veitch did her PhD through IPAN and subsequently held a Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, followed by a NHMRC Early Career Researcher Fellowship. Dr Ridgers held an Alfred Deakin Postdoc with IPAN as well as an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.”
Vanguard grants provide funding to test the feasibility of innovative concepts in public health or health services, including clinical service delivery.
Dr Backholer’s Vanguard grant will support an innovative collaboration between health and information technology researchers to develop a comprehensive food price database for Australia.
“Dr Backholer’s work is world leading and will have very real implications for the ways we think about health, food and retail environments,” said Professor Steven Allender, Unit Head at GLOBE.
“This project showcases some recent advances in the approach the Global Obesity Centre is using to support governments nationally and internationally to reduce the social and economic burden of unhealthy weight.”
Parks for heart health – Dr Jenny Veitch
When Dr Jenny Veitch studied factors influencing children’s free play for her PhD in 2008, parks and public spaces emerged as an important area for further investigation.
Her research since then has focused on designing neighbourhood environments to maximise physical activity and is being used to inform new practice in designing parks and the built environment.
Dr Veitch’s Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellowship will focus on how parks can be improved to encourage physical activity for the prevention of heart disease.
“Insufficient physical activity is an established risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but motivating people to be active for health benefits has had limited success,” Dr Veitch said.
“We know that the way our neighbourhoods are designed is related to the amount of physical activity we undertake. Parks are important features of the neighbourhood built environment that can support people of all ages to engage in regular physical activity, but unfortunately they’re an under-utilised community health resource.
“Modifying the built environment by improving parks and providing amenities that encourage park visitors to be active is a potentially long-term and sustainable way to increase the levels of physical activity in the general population.”
Dr Veitch said that, given projected urban population growth, higher density living and climate and environmental challenges, the availability of high quality and appropriately designed parks was critical for future generations. However, there is a lack research evidence to inform optimal park design for physical activity.
“Small improvements in park amenities and features have been shown to substantially increase park visitation and levels of physical activity, but we don’t know a lot about what features are most important for different user groups.
“This research will use novel methods to improve understanding of park features that influence park visitation and physical activity for park visitors of all ages,” she explained.
“The findings will inform future park design and re-development for park visitors across the life course and be used to advocate for investment in park maintenance and improvement. The benefit to individuals and communities is improved physical and mental health and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Dr Veitch’s project will include multiple methodologies, such as walk-along interviews, photographic studies and novel one-on-one virtual bike-along interviews to explore the importance of park features among adolescents, adults and older adults recruited from varied socio-economic areas. Participants will ride a stationary bike with pre-selected virtual parks projected onto a dome, enabling them to experience the park as though they are cycling through.
“This will lead to in-depth information and new insights,” Dr Veitch said. “Most previous research has relied on retrospective surveys about people’s perceptions of parks, which are not always accurate. More innovative ‘in the moment’ measures are needed to generate evidence about specific features that attract people to visit parks and engage in physical activity while they’re there.”
The challenges of promoting youth physical activity – Dr Nicky Ridgers
Moving more and sitting less are critical for cardiovascular health from a young age and important for future heart health later in life. However, many Australian young people don’t do enough physical activity and spend too much time sitting.
“We need interventions to help change these behaviours, but we also need a greater understanding of how youth accumulate their physical activity and sedentary time, and the impact of these patterns of activity accumulation on cardio-metabolic risk factors to inform future intervention efforts,” Dr Nicky Ridgers said.
“We’re hoping to generate targeted interventions to decrease sedentary behaviour and build activity into children’s daily lives.”
Dr Ridgers said the majority of research conducted to date focused on associations between cardio-metabolic risk factors and how much physical activity and sedentary time youth engage in each day.
“However, this ignores the way in which activity is accumulated, or activity patterns. Activity is accumulated in bouts, or periods of sustained activity, that vary in frequency, intensity and duration,” she explained.
“There is emerging evidence that how individuals accumulate their physical activity and sedentary time each day may be important for health.
“This Future Leader Fellowship funding provides an opportunity to really understand children’s activity levels. We know that around 18 per cent of children don’t meet the recommended guidelines for daily physical activity, which puts Australian kids at the lower end of global rankings.”
Dr Ridgers, whose research into children's physical activity during school recess has informed the Heart Foundation's core work and been translated into international policy and practice, explained that her project would inform the design, development, and evaluation of interventions through establishing which activity patterns may be beneficial for health, which activity patterns may be easier – or more resistant – to change in an intervention, and whether changes in activity patterns are important for cardio-metabolic risk factors.
“Little is known about how patterns of physical activity and sedentary time accumulation impact on cardio-metabolic health. Using new, innovative techniques to advance the measurement of youth activity patterns, this research will determine how activity accumulation is associated with risk factors such as weight status, cholesterol and blood pressure,” she said.
“There is a need to examine whether interventions can change activity patterns, and whether any changes in these patterns have beneficial effects on cardio-metabolic risk factors. It’s particularly important to establish, given the lack of intervention effects observed on total activity levels in youth to date. If changing activity patterns benefit health, it may result in changing the way that interventions are designed, delivered, and evaluated.
“These findings are key for public health recommendations, policy and practice about how youth should accumulate activity across the day to benefit health and will inform the refinement of national physical activity and sedentary time guidelines.
“Since cardiovascular disease risk factors, physical activity levels and sedentary behaviour track into adulthood, low activity levels will continue to pose significant threats to population health and impact on the burden of disease, both now and in the future, unless we address this inactivity crisis,” Dr Ridgers said.
Developing a national food and beverage price monitoring system – Dr Kathryn Backholer
A collaboration between the Faculty of Health and the Deakin Software and Technology Innovation Laboratory (DSTIL), Dr Kathryn Backholer’s Heart Foundation Vanguard project will develop the first fully automated food and beverage price monitoring system for all products sold online from Australia’s major supermarkets.
Dubbed “Price Tracker,” the proposed system will automatically extract product and price information from all foods and beverages sold online at Coles and Woolworths and link it with existing information on the nutritional composition and Health Star Rating of more than 40,000 supermarket products.
“The price of food and drinks is a key driver behind the choices people make at the supermarket,” Dr Backholer said.
“However, there is no regular, reliable and comprehensive monitoring of the price of food and beverages sold in major supermarkets in Australia, where more than 60 per cent of spending on food occurs.
“This lack of monitoring limits robust analyses of the relative price of healthy and unhealthy foods and how this changes over time in response to external influences, an analysis which is necessary for creating effective health and fiscal policies.
“For example, recent discussions about applying GST to fresh foods and a tax on sugar sweetened beverages are two examples of policies that will directly affect food prices if implemented in Australia.
“However, we currently don’t have any process in place to assess manufacturer pass-on of price changes, or how price promotions and specials might influence such policies. This project intends to fill this critical gap.”
Dr Backholer began her career in nutritional epidemiology and public health in 2010. Her research program aims to build an evidence base to support the equitable prevention of diet related ill-health through policy and practice, with a particular focus on price manipulation for healthy eating.
“To illustrate the importance of food and beverage price monitoring, we have an ongoing, 12 month project, where we are manually collecting all weekly price specials for all beverages sold online at Coles and Woolworths – the first study of its kind in Australia and internationally,” Dr Backholer said.
“From just five months of data collection to date, we can clearly identify that a large proportion of sugary drinks are sold at a discounted special price every single week, with an average weekly price reduction of 40 per cent. This presents important practical barriers for the effectiveness of any future sugar sweetened beverage tax in Australia - a key obesity and cardiovascular disease prevention policy – underscoring the need for a routine food and beverage price monitoring system in Australia.”
Dr Backholer’s previous research has demonstrated that collecting the price of foods and beverages online is valid and semi-automated data extraction from supermarkets’ online stores is possible. The research team is now aiming to extend this preliminary work to create the first, and most comprehensive, database of its kind in Australia and internationally.
The dataset will be pilot tested by an analysis of the association between price and product healthfulness for three product categories known to influence diet quality: breakfast cereals, juices, and cereal bars.
“An unhealthy diet is the leading risk factor for the global burden of disease, increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. A food and beverage price environment that promotes healthy choices is critical for the improvement of population diets and cardiovascular health.”
Dr Backholer said DSTIL’s role in the project was vital, as creating the database would not be possible using manual techniques.
“This is the most exciting grant I have received so far in terms of the potential for population health research,” Dr Backholer said.
“We’ve assembled a multi-disciplinary research team with sound expertise in software and technology innovation, population nutrition, and supermarket environments and databases.
“We will use advanced programing and data extraction methods to develop Price Tracker and test its validity by comparing products and prices with in-store supermarket products across a range of product categories, collected from customer receipts.
“We hope to use this baseline data to develop a larger Australian Research Council grant to inform an ongoing global food and beverage price monitoring system in the future,” she said.
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From top - Dr Jenny Veitch, Dr Nicky Ridgers, Dr Kathryn Backholer