Firsthand experience in the fitness industry inspired one of the world’s leading scientists to bring together her passions for behavioural science and physical activity in research that’s changing the lives of people around Australia and the world.
The positivity of physical activity
Alfred Deakin Professor Jo Salmon has made getting people moving her life’s work, especially young people. As she says, “physical activity is critical to every aspect of life, from physical and mental health to social life. If we don’t engage in it, we’re not maximising what we can get out of it.”
As an undergraduate psychology student working in the fitness industry to support herself financially, Prof. Salmon saw for herself the ‘amazing’ physical and psychological transformations among people who had - often for the first time - increased their activity and fitness levels in the gym and knew her dream career should combine behavioural science with physical activity.
Research that moves us
Undertaking a PhD at Deakin University to understand why so many people spend many of their waking hours sitting down and how they could increase their activity levels, Prof. Salmon discovered another passion: research.
More than 20 years later, Prof. Salmon is a research expert in child physical activity and sedentary behaviour, the Director of Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) and founder and President of the Australasian Society for Physical Activity (ASPA). In 2020, she was recognised as one of the world’s leading scientific minds, ranking in the top 1% most cited in her subject field for six years running.
Through her research, Prof. Salmon has made a significant contribution to public health physical activity initiatives in Australia and around the world. For the past 13 years, she’s led Transform-Us!, a ground-breaking initiative to promote children’s physical activity and reduce prolonged sitting in Victorian primary schools.
“Since my PhD, most of my research has focused on how to create supportive environments to help children establish physical activity habits from a young age,” she says. “We’ve engineered the need to move out of our daily lives and the current generation of children are the least active in the history of humankind. While we can’t go back in time, finding ways to get kids moving when their world is designed to help them conserve energy is a major global research challenge and something I’m extremely passionate about.”
In a typical school day, Prof. Salmon says, Australian children spend up to 70% of their waking hours sitting, putting them at risk of developing chronic diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease later in life.
“We developed the Transform-Us! initiative to use innovative strategies in classroom, school and home settings to get students moving more and sitting less. Across the curriculum, lesson plans and resources are aligned to support all Victorian primary school teachers to incorporate movement into to everyday classes,” she explains.
“Learning while moving not only helps children focus on their lessons, it also benefits their health and wellbeing.”
With the assistance of 16 stakeholder organisations, including the Department of Education and Training, VicHealth, the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation Victoria, Peak PhysEd, the Victorian Principals Association and Victorian Independent Schools, the initiative is now being extended into secondary schools and to children with additional needs and will soon be offered nationally. The next generation of teachers will also be trained in the program, with Deakin integrating the principles of Transform-Us! into its Bachelor of Education (Primary).
“Transform-Us! is an investment in future generations, informing health policy and practice programs, with the potential to impact kids’, teachers’ and parents’ day-to-day lives, health and understanding of physical activity,” Prof. Salmon says.
“My vision is to transform education settings so that moving while learning becomes the norm, rather than children and young people sitting all day.”
The Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN)
The Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) is a world-leading research institute committed to improving health and quality of life. It aims to reduce the rates of chronic disease through nutrition and physical activity research excellence while fostering the next generation of research stars.
We sat down with Alfred Deakin Professor Jo Salmon to find out more about IPAN and its work.
What is the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) and what inspired you to become its Director?
IPAN is a world-leading research institute committed to improving health and quality of life. Our multi-disciplinary, internationally renowned researchers focus on understanding and influencing physical activity and nutrition in the population. We have 90 academic members of staff, four professional staff, 88 PhD students, and more than 50 research staff who are all working to reduce the rates of chronic disease through nutrition and physical activity research excellence.
We have four research domains: the Biology of Health and Disease, Preventing and Managing Chronic Conditions, Healthy Active Living, and Food, Nutrition and Health. Our research priorities also include the First 2000 Days of Life and Healthy and Functional Ageing.
In 2003, my former co-Director, Emeritus Professor David Crawford, current Deputy Director Alfred Deakin Professor Anna Timperio, Alfred Deakin Professor Kylie Ball, and I were founders of Deakin’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN). I am incredibly proud to have been involved in the growth of the former Centre to become the thriving Deakin supported research institute IPAN is today.
What do you enjoy about being the Director and how do you balance that task with your own research?
Being Director of IPAN is extremely rewarding. I enjoy connecting with researchers across so many disciplines. This includes research that focuses on the biological mechanisms of exercise and nutrition, to preventing and managing chronic conditions, epidemiology, and implementation science approaches. Helping support the next generation of researchers in nutrition and physical activity is also very gratifying. I balance the role of Director and my own research program by working with a wonderful team of support and research staff, postdoctoral fellows and collaborators.
What distinguishes IPAN from other research institutes in this field?
IPAN is unique in its focus on two of the key behaviours that influence health and wellbeing. Many health research institutes have a disease focus, but we know that if we can effectively promote a healthy diet and physical activity at the individual and population level then there will be numerous health and economic benefits as well as co-benefits (for example, environmental benefits from increasing active transport and reducing car dependency). Our multi-disciplinary research focus is a major strength in IPAN, as is our relationship with key stakeholders, which ensures optimal research impacts.
At IPAN we see working with stakeholders and partners as critical to our research success. We value contributions and interest from community, government and non-government stakeholders, as well as other universities, in all areas of our research across physical activity, nutrition, digital health, and primary and secondary prevention.
How does IPAN contribute to Deakin's strategic priorities? What are your priorities for the Institute?
IPAN’s focus aligns closely with Deakin’s impact themes ‘Improving health and wellbeing’ and ‘Enabling a sustainable world’. Deakin’s values drive IPAN’s culture – we are brave, sustainable, ethical and dynamic and we have always focussed on a culture of excellence and inclusion.
Research impact is a high priority for IPAN - we are passionate about making a difference to people’s health through physical activity and nutrition research. IPAN’s long-standing partnerships also make a strong contribution to Deakin’s research impact locally, nationally and globally. The more we can demonstrate our research impact, the more we can help shift the policy goalposts towards preventative health, which is crucial for an increasing and ageing population.
What are some of the major projects IPAN is working on?
Some of our flagship research projects include:
- INFANT (the Infant feeding, active play and nutrition program), led by Professors Karen Campbell, Kylie Hesketh and A/Prof Rachel Laws over 10 years to help families establish healthy lifestyle behaviours from the start of life. It’s currently being implemented across Victoria and is funded through a five-year Partnership Project Grant from NHMRC and supported with additional funding from the Victorian Department of Health.
- Transform-Us!, an initiative I lead, has been implemented over 13 years and has so far been adopted in more than 400 primary schools by 1150 registered teachers reaching nearly 30,000 children. It has been supported by approximately $5M in grants from NHMRC, with additional funding from the Victorian Department of Education and Training.
- Trialling a personalised telehealth exercise and lifestyle program (TeleFFIT) to reduce falls and fracture risk in older adults, led by Professor Robin Daly and funded through the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund.
- Developing a ‘smarthome ecosystem’, harnessing information technology to improve self-management and health outcomes for people living with heart failure, led by Professor Ralph Maddison and funded through an NHMRC Ideas Grant.
Higher Degree by Research
How do HDR students contribute to IPAN’s work? Where do you see your current HDR students working in the future? How do you see them contributing to the field?
In 2020, we had 98 PhD students contributing to our research program. The current PhD students I’m involved in supervising are studying diverse topics including primary school children’s physical activity compensation; exploring optimal park design for use among older adults; assessing children’s physical literacy; and developing before-school interventions for adolescents. Aside from careers in research or academia, there is potential in the future for these students to be working in the fields of education, public health and health promotion, urban planning, and sport and recreation at all levels of government.
What advice can you provide to a prospective student looking to work in the same field?
Choose an area you’re passionate about! There will be times when you can’t understand why funding bodies or editors of journals aren’t equally as excited as you are about your research. Maintaining confidence in the importance of your research can be challenging at times. The most vital characteristic you can develop as a researcher is resilience so that you can keep persisting when you don’t succeed.
There are many routes to the same destination. Sometimes we see our research idols and believe that we need to follow their road map. But the reality is we all have our unique paths and that’s ok.
The future of IPAN
What do you think will be some of the most exciting or ground-breaking uses of IPAN’s research in 10-20 years’ time?
In the next 10-20 years, IPAN’s research will:
- provide an avenue for patient treatment of Duchenne muscular dystrophy
- revolutionise screening of insulin resistance with a mixed meal challenge
- inform personalised nutrition strategies for young adults
- offer a suite of telerehabilitation exercise and nutrition programs for use in the home, aged care, and in clinical practice for patients who have experienced heart failure or for prevention of falls and fractures in older adults
- transform the food procurement and food service sectors in Australia through healthy and sustainable practices
- offer a scalable suite of integrated initiatives (for example, INFANT, Let’s Grow) providing continuity of support for nutrition, physical activity and reduced sedentary behaviour across the first 2000 days of life
- revolutionise the Australian education system so that moving and learning are standard practice