Amy Carrad, PhD student, School of Health and Society, Faculty of Social Sciences

My PhD research is investigating the feasibility of using organisational development and capacity building strategies to facilitate culture change in sports organisations, specifically gymnastics. The ultimate goal of this culture change is to shift sports settings to be supportive of holistic wellbeing by stepping away from the historically strong focus on athlete skill development and competition. The health areas for the current phase of my research are mental health and nutrition.

Why does this interest you?

Health promotion through sports interests me because of the links between prevention of chronic diseases, settings-based approaches to health promotion, the large number of Australians participating in sport, and the potential to utilise the existing structures of sports organisations to deliver on health promotion. Sport is often assumed to be inherently healthy because of its physical activity component, however there are other exposures within the sports context that are not health promoting. Some examples are sponsorship by alcohol and fast food companies, sun protection in outdoor sports, unhealthy foods in canteens and fundraising, and mental health issues including body image disorders. I believe that sports clubs are able to alter their physical and social environments in order to address these other health areas that extend beyond exercise alone.

Why is it important?

Non-communicable diseases are the leading causes of death and disability in Australia, accounting for approximately 85% of the burden of disease and 90% of total deaths. Generally, risk factors for these diseases originate early in life through unhealthy behaviours such as poor diet, smoking, and physical inactivity. However, the behaviours of individuals do not result merely from individual choice but also from socioeconomic, societal, political and environmental determinants. This means that in order to address the high level of preventable disease in Australia, we need to focus on these broader determinants of health. The greatest impact on reducing the physical, social and financial burden of preventable disease is achieved by making smaller improvements amongst many people, rather than large changes to individuals. This is where the setting-based approach to health promotion comes in, with interest increasing in the role sports clubs can play as a health promoting settings.

Describe how you got here?

The inspiration and passion for this area came from my personal experiences coaching gymnastics. The club I coach at has a holiday program for children to attend, during which the lunches we used to serve them would have actually been classified as junk food. I conducted a personal project to improve the nutritional quality of the meals we served by providing the children with vegetables they liked. Over almost three weeks, 252 children underwent my “experiment” or taste-testing to give feedback on these meals. Their responses were encouraging and demonstrated that it was feasible to provide healthier, tasty dishes whilst remaining within budget. However, for my PhD, I didn’t want the field to be as narrow as nutrition alone because there are a lot of other health areas that sports clubs could address.

Who has influenced you in your research career?

I’m not sure there is any one specific person. It would more likely be anyone in the field who is striving to make inroads on the huge public health issues we are faced with. There is very little commitment from government to invest in preventive health, so trying to conduct and sustain projects that seek to benefit the health of our community is a difficult thing and requires a great deal of tenacity.

What has been the most exciting project so far?

I think the most exciting part so far would actually have to be the fieldwork - going out to interview people at their clubs. These people are so invested in their club and it was a beautiful thing to feel their passion for the sport and visit what is for most of them their home away from home.

What do you hope to achieve?

I would love to re-write what sport is. At present, it is predominantly about competition, and developing motor skills and physical fitness. I aspire to be part of the movement to seeing sports organisations changing their mandate to include holistic health because at the end of the day, individuals who are holistically healthy are also going to be better athletes.