Dick Telford, former adjunct associate professor in the ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, knows more about the benefits of physical activity than most.
He had a career in sport that included winning the JJ Liston trophy for best and fairest in the VFA (now VFL) competition, guiding the Victorian Cricket Team to two successive Sheffield Shields as coaching coordinator and manager, coaching Olympic and Commonwealth Games distance running medallists, and winning himself in the 1500m at the World Veterans’ Games.
As impressive as Telford’s on-field achievements are, it will be his contribution to sports science in Australia that will be his legacy.
Telford always knew the value of physical activity for people’s health, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that he decided to study how deep those benefits are.
“It had come to my attention that over the last few decades physical education in primary schools had taken a back seat to just about everything else,” he says.
“This was due to increasing academic and administrative pressures on primary school teachers, particularly with the advent of NAPLAN.”
In 2005, Telford designed and set up a randomised controlled trial in the ACT as part of the Lifestyle Of Our Kids (LOOK) study. Physical education (PE) teachers provided by the Bluearth Foundation delivered two 45-minute sessions per week over four years at primary schools.
The results were compared with a control group of schools that did not have extra PE sessions.
The 850 participants who began the study in 2005 aged eight are now aged 19, and the data is decisive.
“We found children who were not given access to physical education in primary school went into secondary school with a higher instance of insulin resistance, an early sign of increased risk factor for Type 2 diabetes,” Telford says.
“They also showed a higher instance of low-density, ibuprofen cholesterol – basically bad cholesterol – suggesting early increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
The multidisciplinary LOOK study has developed into one of Australia’s richest data sets for health researchers at ANU, University of Canberra and interstate.
Originally funded by the Commonwealth Education Trust, the project was gifted to ANU in 2009 to provide long-term stability.
Professor Telford now shares directive responsibility with his colleague, Walter Abhayaratna, Professor in the ANU Medical School.
The LOOK project is not only studying the value of physical education to children but also examining the importance of physical activity for older Australians.
It may still be decades until the full longitudinal benefit of the LOOK study is realised, but already the breadth of the data set is attracting researchers who have published more than 50 academic papers from it. One researcher, recent ANU PhD Psychology graduate and Visiting Fellow with the Medical School, Dr Lisa Olive, is now investigator for the project.
Together with Emeritus Professor Don Byrne, she has worked to track the participants’ psychological wellbeing, particularly in relation to their physical health.
She found significant links between psychological distress and early signs of risk factors for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
“We weren’t sure if we would find anything in kids, but we did – even low levels of stress and depression seem to have a significant effect on physical health,” she says.
The participants developed a range of symptoms over the study period consistent with mental health issues.
“We could track how the psychological profile of each child changed over time, along with how their physical markers changed,” she says.
“About 5 to 10 per cent of children had symptoms that were high enough to be considered clinically relevant.
“These findings point to new potential medical approaches such as treating children with early symptoms of stress and depression who are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes or cardio vascular disease.”
The LOOK study shows no signs of slowing down: participants are scheduled for the next measurement in 2020, at age 23. After 10 years dedicated to the project, Telford remains enthusiastic about its future. And he has big plans.
He has completed the first of two trials with the Victorian Education Department to test the effectiveness of assisting primary school teachers conduct PE more effectively.
“On the basis of the LOOK study, we want to change the face of physical education within primary schools throughout Australia because it’s not working the way it is,” he says.
“LOOK has a very exciting future.”
The LOOK study is a collaboration between the ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise at the University of Canberra, and welcomes sharing of LOOK data with researchers at other universities, Deakin University already being an active partner.