Creating ARENA

It's difficult to do the right thing

Professor Jon Buckley

Creating ARENA was what you might call a “no brainer”, for two reasons.

The first is that bringing together three research concentrations doing separate but similar work has created a new capability that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. It has changed the dynamics of the way we interact and make our decisions, with an even greater focus on multi-disciplinary projects and new approaches.

It also has given us some pretty impressive credentials for a “new” organisation. ARENA’s expertise contributed substantially to UniSA being ranked by the Australian Research Council as one of only five institutions in Australia performing above world standard in both Nutrition & Dietetics research and Human Movement & Sports Science research. That is a great platform on which to build.

The second reason is that has never been clearer that exercise, nutrition and activity are inextricably linked and that you cannot look at one without the others if you want to bring about lifestyle and policy changes that will genuinely impact on the health and wellbeing of everyday Australians.

It is possible to make a difference, which can make this area of research particularly rewarding. There are frustrations, however, and that impacts on the kind of research we do.

When I first started looking at diet and physical activity it was more about what are the benefits of this and that, but now I’m more concerned about how we get people to do this and that. We can get them to do it for a little while. We can enrol them in a clinical trial and they know they are being monitored and we encourage them to stay with the program. But as soon as we stop they revert to old habits.

We recently finished a major study with the CSIRO into type 2 diabetes in which we succeeded in helping people to lose weight and keep it off for two years, but that was because they kept coming to the clinic to be measured and they knew we were watching. Within three months of that ending, participants came to see us and admitted that “you can probably tell I’ve fallen off the wagon”.

Behaviour change remains pretty hard to achieve and that is always in the back of our mind as we seek to develop ideas and interventions that will be practical as well as scientifically rigorous.

Another important issue is getting people to understand that being active is essentially a matter of being less sedentary. You don’t have to run marathons or take up cycling, you just have to build more activity into your daily lives.

Sedentary time is an independent risk factor for chronic disease, which means going for a morning run won’t necessarily offset the negative affects of sitting at a desk for the rest of the day. I see it in my own situation every day. I used to have to get up out of my chair, walk to the library, photocopy the paper from the journal and bring it back. Now I just sit at my computer and download it. Lots of incidental activities have disappeared and that is having a serious impact on how active we all are.

It is a really big issue. In Australia, lack of physical activity is the second biggest health burden after smoking, and in the US – where anti-smoking programs are more advanced – it is the highest.

That’s a message we have to keep repeating.

Areas of study and research

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