Luminaries driving change: S/Prof Anthony (Tony) Okely

Getting to know our leaders

Anthony (Tony) Okely is a Senior Professor in the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities and Director of Research at Early Start at UOW. Tony’s research focuses on movement behaviours (physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep) in children. He is the 7th most published researcher in the world on physical activity and children.

Being physically active is good for kids’ health and creates opportunities for making new friends and developing physical and social skills. However, an assemblage of changes in the urban environments of children are compromising their healthy future.

Increased traffic on roads and limited safe walking paths, increased air pollution, less green space and parks within walking distance for children to play in, and more children living in apartments with little safe outdoor spaces to play has resulted in children being less active and more sedentary.

In many low- and middle-income countries, families are moving to cities, resulting in overcrowding in housing – which compromises the sleep of children and exposes them to unhealthy levels of sedentary screen-based technologies.

The consequences of low levels of physical activity and sleep and high amounts of sedentary behaviour, especially screen time, are higher levels of childhood obesity and poorer cognitive and motor development, and bone and mental health.

"There's high levels of childhood obesity in Australia due in part to increasingly sedentary lifestyles with children spending a lot of time on electronic media. If we're not giving children access to healthy, active futures - if the environment they're growing up in is not supporting them to thrive - then we need to do better," says S/Prof Tony Okely.

S/Prof Okely works within the the School of Health & Society in the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, and is Director of Research at Early Start, He is also a theme leader at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI).

S/Prof Okely’s research focuses on movement behaviours; physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep in children. It encompasses observational studies that describe the prevalence and patterns of these behaviours; relationships with health, education, and other developmental outcomes; interventions; and guideline development.

He has been awarded over $16 Million in competitive funding, including being Principal Investigator on two National Health and Medical Research Council Project grants. He has published around 300 peer-reviewed journal articles, four book chapters, and four policy-related reports; has over 20,000 career citations. He is also on the editorial board for several international journals and is the 7th most published researcher in the world on physical activity and children.

“My research program spans the behavioural epidemiology framework of physical activity research among children. This includes examining the relationships between policy, social, and environmental influences and the prevalence of physical activity and sedentary behaviour; testing interventions to promote physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour; and translation of research into national and international policies and practice,” says S/Prof Okely.

S/Prof Okely led the research team that developed and recently updated the Australian 24-hr Movement Guidelines for Children 0-5 years, and the Australian 24-hr Movement Guidelines for Children and Young People.

He was also part of the Guideline Development Group for the WHO guidelines on physical activity, sedentary and sleep behaviours in children under 5 years of age, South African 24-hr Movement

Guidelines for Birth to 5 Years, and UK Physical Activity Guidelines for children under 5, and was the international expert on several Canadian Physical Activity guidelines.

He is leading an international surveillance study of 24-hour movement behaviours among pre-school-aged children ( the SUNRISE study) involving 38 countries to date, with around two-thirds being low- or middle-income countries according to the UN Human Development Index.

The SUNRISE study aims to determine the proportion of 3- and 4-year-old children who meet the WHO Global guidelines for physical activity, sedentary and sleep behaviour. In addition, the study aims to determine any differences by sex, socioeconomic status, or urban/rural location between different levels of human and economic development.

“My ultimate aim is to improve the physical activity environments for children and to increase policy priority to ensure safe and accessible environments for physical activity for children.”


About Early Start Research

Early Start is an entity of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and is a collaborative initiative between the Commonwealth Government, the Abbott foundation and UOW to promote impact on the life trajectories of children growing up in regional and remote Australia.

Since its creation in 2014 as one of UOW’s research strengths, Early Start Research has been working to overcome disadvantage and impact the lives of children, youth, and families through its world class research.

Early Start's Research primary business is to conduct world class, evidence-based research that drives government policy, and assists industry professionals and the broader public in making informed educational decisions for policy and practice.

Its members are internationally recognised for their expertise in education, cognition, health, and physical activity.

Early Start infographic 2021