The Future Of: Healthy Being

Featuring Dr Anne-Maree Parrish

“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same five questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Dr Anne-Maree Parrish is a Senior Lecturer with the School of Health and Society. Her research interests include factors influencing children and adolescents sedentary behaviour and physical activity levels through environmental and psychosocial interventions in the school environment. She is an investigator for research projects with the Early Start Research Institute.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

The focus of my research is in sedentary behaviour and physical activity in children and adolescents. Recently we collaborated with the NSW Department of Education looking at flexible learning spaces. This involved converting traditional classrooms, from rows of tables, into flexible spaces with a mix of furniture, like bean bags, stand up desks, white boards and the use of various types of technology. The view is that by reducing the sedentary behaviours of students that there will be an increase in cognition and concentration. The pilot for this project has finished and we are now hoping to run a larger project within the next twelve months.

Also I’m involved in a governance project where we’re revising the Australian physical activity guidelines for children and youth. In addition, I'm leading a systematic review of physical activity guidelines across the globe and then reporting back on the quality, similarities and differences between them all. It’s an exciting collaboration with both national and international input.

I'm also working on a project which is led by Catherine McPhail in which we are in investigating the social determinates that impact during adolescence. It’s only a small study, but we are hoping it will turn in to a larger one in due course. There's not a lot of adolescent research- particularly in the area of social determinates and adolescents. Adolescence are often a difficult target group to conduct research on. There’s a lot of transitions for this age group, and recruiting participants can often be tricky. We believe there is a real gap in research data which we are hoping to rectify.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the most innovative or exciting things emerging over the next few years?

Flexible learning space and reassessing the traditional delivery of the curriculum and teaching pedagogy is exciting from a learning perspective, but equally from a health perspective. In the past I’ve been involved in research that investigates reducing sitting time by using standing desks. This is the focus of a lot of studies across the age spectrum and achieved results can be quite diverse. Outcomes have been quite successful within the primary setting, but in the high school setting the results are inconsistent due to the dynamics of the secondary education environment.

We are embracing the opportunity to research in the area of flexible learning spaces, which we believe will achieve better learning outcomes, than just converting classroom stationary to stand up desks. Flexible leaning spaces will allow the classroom to open up, providing physical space to encourage more creativity in lesson plans, and providing a more engaging and dynamic environment for the students with the use of different mediums. It’s exciting, to be involved in this kind of project.

Through our research into reducing sitting time, we have identified an impact on cognition, and that students concentration levels are better. Often in our health promoting interventions a lot of teachers aren’t really interested in focusing on increasing physical activity or reducing sitting time. It’s exciting that we can now speak to the preferences of teachers- and we are able to say “Look, by reducing sitting time can increase concentration” and through stealth can also improve health.

In addition, in the physical activity field there has been a trend towards moving from looking at physical activity guidelines from a separated silo perspective with physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep being examined as separate components. Researchers are now moving more towards looking at a 24 hour movement behaviour model. It is now being acknowledged that each of these behaviour do not work independently- and if you change one of them, it will impact the others in some way or another. New approaches to health and wellbeing, which factor in this model of thinking are being examined and adapted.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

For researcher’s cuts in funding make finding better outcomes for all difficult. We are all fighting for the same pool of money, and we’ve all got equally important fields of research. Unless early to mid-career researchers establish partnerships or collaborations with already high achieving individuals or organisations, great research may never get off the ground or not provide as much impact as it could, much to the detriment of society.

From a stakeholder point of view, parents already know what the problems are. With increasing technology use, there is increasing sitting time and reductions in physical activity. We don’t know what technology is coming in the next five to ten years and that’s scary because as kids age, their physical activity drops and their sedentary behaviours increase. Also research is indicating that children are experiencing changes in behaviours and diagnosable psychological illnesses that are related to some of the games and technologies.

Parents and carers need to take a look at the guidelines, and assess their children and their own lifestyles. Sometimes it’s not advisable to have a television in your child’s room, and it’s an important thing is to have clear boundaries that you stick too in regards to portable devices. Encouraging a sport or some kind of physical activity would always be recommended. Its very difficult for parents these days. In the olden days parents had trouble getting their kids to come inside before the sun came down, and now days it’s the opposite way around- we can’t get our kids outside. Changes in housing developments, houses without yards, kids go to different school, so they don’t know the kids in their street, the perceived notion of safety by parents not wanting their kids to walk or ride to school anymore, all impact our wellbeing. The dynamics and the determinant of our environment have changed the social networks that kids used to have.

Where do you believe major opportunities lie for people thinking about future career options?

I teach health promotion and public health and the opportunities are vast and varied. When parents or students come up to us a career expos they ask us- “What job will this create”. If you are doing teaching or nursing that becomes really obvious- but with public health it’s not quite so obvious. There are positions as health promotions officers, in government and councils in non-government organisations, mental health positions, drug and alcohol and sometimes in health funds. As far as research is concerned there is an array of positions available. There are plenty of positions for good quality, engaged Phd students too.

Only 2% of research funding goes towards prevention, however non-communicable disease cause 80% of our health problems. A change of mindset from funding bodies and researchers is required. People will need to become innovative in the way they get their research funded. Partnerships with business and community bodies will be essential, as will interdisciplinary collaborations to establish true translational research. Exploring these types of relationship can really open new opportunities for those willing to grab them.

In regards to your field of study or expertise, what is the best piece of advice you could offer to our readers?

This piece of advice stems back to when I was first starting thinking about doing my PhD. I was tossing up ideas of what question I wanted to explore. I said to one of my supervisors “I think I should do this because I work in this area, and I could probably access this research better, but I’m really interested in this, and that’s what I’d really love to do” and he said “You do what you would love to do”. I think that’s great advice- always do what you love to do, and if you don’t love it, then don’t do it. But also- be kind to people while you’re doing it.

For more from Dr Dr Anne-Maree Parrish you can visit her UOW Scholars