Episode 35 – Interview with physical activity and mental health researchers Associate Professor Megan Teychenne and Dr Niamh Mundell
This week we loved chatting with two more researchers from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN): Associate Professor Megan Teychenne and Dr Niamh Mundell.
Megan’s PhD is in Behavioural Epidemiology and she’s currently an NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow at IPAN. For more than 15 years Megan has investigated the role of health-related behaviours (e.g. physical activity, sedentary behaviour) in the prevention and treatment of mental health conditions (particularly depression and anxiety), with a focus on vulnerable population groups including socioeconomically disadvantaged populations and women (pregnant and postpartum). She has played a pivotal role in advancing knowledge of the field, with her research cited in several international evidence briefings (e.g. British Heart Foundation, The World Health Organisation), and in her role as associate editor for the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity. Megan actively contributes to raising public awareness about the importance of physical activity for improving mental health, having been a guest on several national radio and TV programs, as well as her research being profiled in several hundreds of popular media articles worldwide.
Niamh Mundell is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Exercise Physiology within Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences. She is also a Non-Executive Director at Exercise and Sports Science Australia and practices as an accredited exercise physiologist. She has a PhD in the field of exercise for cognition during ageing and cancer survival, (Deakin University) and Master of Exercise Physiology (Victoria University, Australia). Her research primarily focuses on exercise physiology, with interests in mental and cognitive health during ageing and chronic disease and improving the exercise physiology industry for clinicians and patients. Niamh’s research integrates clinical exercise physiology skills and experience to focus on improving the way clinical outcomes are captured and the optimal modes of delivery to support value-based care in clinical exercise physiology practice.
You call follow Megan and Niamh and find out more about their work here:
The exercise that best supports your mental health (smh.com.au)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello and a very warm welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m Jen and as always I’m joined by my good friend Michael. Hello Michael.
Hey Jen, it is great to be here as always.
But before we begin today I have to ask, have you been out for a run recently?
Yeah, I have, this morning.
I’ve been running this morning.
It was delightful, a lot better than when I ran on Saturday, in the absolutely pouring rain.
Ah, that does sound miserable, and I made sure to get in an hour on the bike before today’s podcast because we are going to be talking about physical activity and mental health, and I really wanted to impress our guests Dr Megan Teychenne and Dr Niamh Mundell. Welcome to you both.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, it’s lovely to be here and I’m suitably impressed.
Thank you. Yeah, so first, first question on a scale of 1 to 10. How impressed are you at Jen and myself’s exercise?
10 out of 10.
I feel thoroughly validated now, Michael.
Thank you for beginning my day this way.
Great, well that’s the end of the podcast. Thank you very much for listening. We’ll just leave it on a high. No but seriously, for the listeners at home, Megan is a NHMRC emerging leadership fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University. And Megan, your work is in the area of physical activity, sedentary behaviour, mental illness with a particular focus on depression and anxiety, and also with a focus on at risk populations too. And Megan, you’re also my work neighbour. Your office is only a few doors down from mine.
That’s right, I have to say that I do enjoy getting on campus you know, from time to time and actually seeing a face or two. So it’s actually nice to see you today as well.
Yeah, it’s fantastic. And when we were chatting about this episode Megan, you suggested to bring along Niamh, who I’ve not met before. So Niamh, it’s lovely to meet you.
Thanks, lovely to meet you too. Thanks for having me.
For the listeners. Niamh’s a lecturer in clinical exercise physiology and an accredited exercise physiologist at Deakin University. You’re also a non-executive director at Exercise and Sport Science Australia. And you’ve published lots in the area of physical activity and mental health.
But Niamh I suspect the real reason that Megan suggested you as a guest for today’s episode is because you were previously in a band together. Is that correct?
Oh, the secret. So I’m not sure we were in a band together. I did offer to play the triangle for one of Megan’s gigs.
Oh right, OK. So you had applied to be in the band, but you didn’t make the cut.
I don’t think we’ve had the audition yet.
Yeah that’s right. We’re, we’re very strict with who we allow in and out.
And if you’re playing the triangle, it’s gotta be to a very high quality Michael.
Right, I see, I see. Well look, maybe if you’ve got a triangle lying around their Niamh, feel free to play it.
And you’ve got Megan attention now so…
Just so happens I do.
Oh, there you go. The audition is live.
You’re in Niamh. You’re in.
All right, that was my second question Megan.
On a scale of 1 to 10. How good was that triangle?
That was very good. We’ll give, give that a 10.
But look, thanks so much for joining us today to chat about physical activity and mental health.
I’m always curious to ask the question of what was your motivation for getting into this area of work.
So maybe Megan, we could start with you first.
Yeah, I guess it was a couple of motivations. Originally, you know, as a teenager I just, I loved to be active. And I found that going for a run after school was just my down time and I really felt the mental health benefits of going for that run. And then when I got to university and I was doing my undergrad Phys Ed course. I remember there was one lecture.
She was a Dr Kylie Ball at the time. She’s now a professor. But she gave a lecture and there was one slide in there that said, “Oh and exercise you know might be linked to positive mental health benefits”. And that was about it. And I thought, now this seems like a pretty cool area to research more in.
So that’s where it kind of stemmed from. I then did my honours and PhD with Kylie as my supervisor. And that really just put me on onto this passion project of you know, trying to find the best physical activities that we can promote to optimise mental health for everyone.
Yeah, I think it’s just you know, it’s such an appealing proposition that something as accessible and relatively simple as exercise… I mean, obviously there’s lots of different types of exercise, but you always imagine that everyone could find something that they enjoy doing and they have access to. That, that could be enough to be really helpful for mental health, I think that’s just a, a wonderful thing to try and understand better.
Yeah, and often you know, we’ll have one lecturer or one lecture even in particular that can influence us. It’s, it’s amazing when you kind of think back on the yeah, the influence that our, our lecturers had at, at university.
So Niamh, how about yourself? What were your motivations for getting into this area?
Well, similarly to Megan, that for myself, going for a run is really the only thing that keeps my mind sane I feel. And fitting it in has become more and more important the older I’ve gotten, and busier I’ve got. But also I, I work as a exercise physiologist and often I was finding that a lot of my clients who had other chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer or cardiovascular disease were presenting with mental health challenges at the very least.
And the two things seem to negatively affect each other. So, and there’s evidence as well that shows that if you have a chronic disease or chronic illness, and you have a mental illness, the two things tend to make each other worse. So it was about for me finding ways to help the whole person, to take a bit better control of their health. And yeah, exercises has been a great tool.
Yeah, I can completely understand what you’re both saying. Running for me is just essential to maintaining good mental health. So much so that I ran far too much during the first year of lockdowns in Melbourne and ended up with a stress fracture, which wasn’t kind of ideal. But you know, kept me going through 2020 so…
Oh absolutely. I found during these very long Melbourne lockdowns that exercise was essential. And I think that’s what was really lovely about the government recommendations. They at least allowed us at minimum to be able to go and be active for an hour a day. And I think you know, that’s them acknowledging how important it is for mental health.
Yeah, 100%. I just can’t imagine what it would have been like had we not had at least an hour a day to get out with the dog, the kids, whatever it was.
But I think listening you know, it just makes me think this is such a big topic. Mental health in and of itself and physical activity in and of itself. And then bring them together, such a big topic. And it’s you know, it’s sort of hard to know where to start when we think about supporting our listeners who want to know how to take the best care of themselves.
But because we knew it was gonna be such a big topic, we did actually put a call out to our listeners to find out what they wanted to know. And thanks so much to the listeners who got back to us with their questions.
So I’m going to pose one of their questions to you. So thank you from Alicia Anderson for this question. And Alicia asked, “Does the length of exercise or the type of exercise impact the effect that it has on mental health? And what what’s your best advice? You know, is it about cardio? Is it about an hour or whatever it is?” But then with a follow-up question, which I think is really interesting, Alicia asked out of curiosity, “Are there any forms of exercise that actually have a negative impact on mental health?” So I’m not sure who wants to take that, but I’m desperate to hear the answers. Thanks for the great questions Alicia.
Sure, I’ll jump in. Yeah, so we’ve been looking for about the last 15 years at different kinds of physical activity and how they’re associated with mental health outcomes. So that might be depressive symptoms. It might be anxiety symptoms, etc. And what we’ve looked at is the different domains of physical activity. So the different purpose or or life context of that physical activity.
And we can break physical activity down to four domains. That’s leisure time physical activity, so what we do for recreation. Transport-related physical activity, so what we do to get from place to place. We’ve got domestic physical activity, so that’s the old cleaning the house. And then work-related physical activity, so that[‘s] physical activity we do as a part of our occupation. So for a nurse, it might be walking around a hospital.
And what we’ve shown time and time again now is that leisure-time physical activity and transport-related physical activity are positively associated with mental health outcomes. So really beneficial for our mental health. But on the flip side what we’ve shown is that work- related physical activity may have the opposite effect, that is, the more work-related physical activity one does, the poorer the mental health outcomes.
Now, that’s not saying that all work -related physical activity is going to have that adverse effect on our mental health. But it suggests that it’s not a one size fits all. And I think that’s really important to keep in mind. So that you know, being active for recreation or getting from place to place is really where we’re going to get those mental health benefits.
And it kind of makes sense because when you think about components of physical activity that are important for mental health, enjoyment of physical activity or having that sense of control over your physical activity, those elements are particularly prominent in leisure time and transport-related physical activity. You choose to be, you know, to go for a run. Or you can choose to go dancing or whatever it might be. But when it comes to work-related or even domestic physical activity, those elements don’t generally really exist unless you really enjoy cleaning the house, which some people do.
Isn’t that fascinating? So it’s a sense of agency. It’s kind of having some choice and deciding I want to do this rather than I have to do.
So maybe I need to take a bit more agency over the domestic physical activity that I do and say I’m choosing to wash the dishes.
Think of the good it will do you.
Yeah. And I think that’s such an important point that you make as well Megan about one size doesn’t fit all. And there’s actually not really one best type of exercise, as you say. It’s really whatever works for you and your kind of particular situation. And you know, it’s interesting to think about exercise then, four different groups of people because everyone got their own needs.
And we did actually have another great question from one of our listeners, Dr Susan Northfield, who asked: “What about the role of exercise in managing neurodiverse conditions like ADHD?” Susan’s interested in that and also you know, whether there are different effects for adults versus children.
That’s a great question. I’ll have a go at that. Thanks for that question. So the evidence for exercise and helping people with ADHD to manage their symptoms is quite a new area and it is growing quite rapidly. But essentially, the benefits that any person really can experience from exercise for cognitive and mental health will also apply to somebody with ADHD.
And maybe because they’re… a person who’s initially having difficulty with their concentration has the benefits as well. It might be that effects seem greater, if you know what I’m saying. So the effects of concentration and mood and memory and things like that seem greater.
There is some evidence that, this was a while ago I’ve read this so it may have been updated, but I did read that some of the medications for ADHD can increase or reduce the children’s ability to thermoregulate. So it can be more important to stay hydrated when it comes to children.
So in terms of mental health though, I guess the social element is really important for children. It is for adults as well, but particularly when it comes to children who might have some kind of stigmatising mental health label or condition that potentially they feel judged or not necessarily ADHD, it could be be anything and it may also be physical. Them feeling excluded from physical activity can have a really negative effect. So feeling excluded from sport or not included in as part of the team or not good enough. And that can you know, the opposite of the mastery experience if you like. And it can lead to sort of lifelong avoidance, which is this really sad thing because there’s so much to be gained from it.
Hmm, listening to you speak, it kind of becomes really apparent that there’s just really a plethora of health benefits when it comes to exercise. I’m sure many of our listeners will be familiar with that mantra, that exercise is medicine.
But just to kind of touch back on something that you mentioned earlier about equity. What about this idea of equity of access when it comes to information about the health benefits of exercise or even access to facilities that are you know, encourage us to to be more physically active or allow us to do that? How much work needs to be done in the area of generating new knowledge about the health benefits of exercise versus actually getting that knowledge out there and ensuring equity of access to that information and access to facilities to encourage people to be more active?
Great point, Michael. I think it’s pretty clear from the evidence that exercise is good for mental health. And so in terms of the evidence base, we’ve got a lot to stand on there. There’s still a little bit of research needed to tease out exactly which qualitative components are going to be more beneficial. So for example, looking at indoor versus outdoor physical activity.
But in general, exercise is good for mental health. So the big gap is that, that translational gap, that implementation science gap. And that’s where we need to really start focusing on so how can we implement physical activity into systems that already exist? How can we increase the access to facilities to walking tracks to safe places to be physically active?
And, and we often see people living in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods are often characterised by poor street lighting, safety concerns, busy traffic, busy roads. And those kinds of elements when you’re being physically active are probably not going to enhance your mental health. They can potentially have adverse effects. So we really got to start thinking about well yeah the, the design of these neighbourhoods and how we can improve access to great facilities and and places to be active for people particularly of low socioeconomic position.
Makes me think Megan. Do we know whether all of the, the kind of increase in online availability of exercise classes during the pandemic. Do we know has that helped more people to have access to exercise support?
Yeah, there’s been some research suggesting that during particularly the lockdowns there was an increase in people accessing these online workouts, even YouTube, those kinds of things. So that is certainly increasing the access for those populations. But that’s if you enjoy that kind of physical activity.
And we’ve got to keep in mind that a lot of people perhaps don’t enjoy doing a high intensity interval training workout in their lounge room. And perhaps they would prefer to go for a walk out in the neighbourhood where they might feel safe, where they might be able to get a bit of sunshine and even some social interaction. So when we bear all of those characteristics in mind for our mental health, I guess it’s providing a smorgasbord of opportunities for physical activity for everyone.
Michael, did your eyes just light up there at the mention of the word smorgasbord?
Yeah, and my stomach growls.
We often say…
So Michael and I are both very, very passionate exercisers and and it means we also both quite like eating.
So we often end up talking about food, don’t we, Michael?
I think it’s a common theme to the podcast. It always creeps in, especially if we’re recording at lunchtime.
Well, speaking about common themes, this a science communication podcast. And obviously we’re so thrilled to have your advice and input because we believe that scientists are very busy people, often overwhelmed. For us to be suggesting that we want people to spend a whole lot of time communicating their work. You know, people need to feel well and energised to be able to do that.
But so you know your advice is really pertinent to all of us. But given that it is a science communication podcast, I’d really like to end by just hearing both your thoughts on communicating these ideas around physical activity and mental health to a non-expert audience, because I know that you’ve both spent lots of time doing that.
So I’m interested to hear, Why do you think that’s important? Why do you find the time to do this? And I guess just what advice you have. What have you learned about how to communicate your research effectively to non experts?
Yeah, I’ll I’ll jump in. I, I think you know, science communication is so so important, hence why you were both doing this fabulous podcast. If we’ve got all the knowledge and we’re holding it to ourselves or within peer-reviewed journals where it’s not accessible to the broader population. Well, that’s a, that’s a bit of a waste.
And I think it’s just so important, particularly when it comes to mental health. We know that one in five people are going to experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. It’s so important that we can get these messages out there and as Niamh said earlier on that this is such a, a great tool, physical activity. A great simple tool that most people can do to enhance their mental health.
So when it comes to SciComm I’ve had a bit of experience in the media and it often comes around at mental health week. So generally in October. And we usually line up a few radio interviews and and newspaper interviews.
And some of the lessons I’ve learned from that experience that I think might be useful for some of the listeners is well firstly keeping your message really simple so no jargon. Having you know one to two key messages that you really kind of circle back to. But thirdly, taking the lead when it comes to those interviews
And I’ve got an example of a few years ago mental health week interview, breakfast radio, 6AM. Quite a prominent breakfast radio host was fixated on my last name, my surname and how you have an acute or the punctuation for the ‘E’ at the very end. And knowing that you’ve only got 6 minutes for a radio interview, and this is mental health week, really important stuff to get our key messages out there. I had to really think on my feet how to take the lead.
And after about a minute and half of him talking about how you would use the, the keyboard on the computer to to get an accent or an acute. He said, “Oh gosh, that that would be a bit of a struggle”. And as soon as he said the word struggle, I took the lead and I said “Well, speaking of struggle, a lot of people are struggling with their mental health” and I was able to pivot this, this interview around but…
Wow, nice work. I can just imagine you’re getting so frustrated.
It’s like dude, we’ve only got a couple of minutes. Can we talk about the important stuff?
Yeah, it’s such good advice because you do only have a short amount of time and really you know, you’ve got to get your message out in a concise way. And yeah, it sounds like quite a challenging situation there, Megan.
Hopefully nothing similar has happened with you Niamh. Have you have ever been in a, in a situation like that before?
Well, not exactly like that Michael. And I’m going to be a little bit cheeky and flip the question here a little bit to… My why is the reason why I think it’s important to communicate about the value of exercise and physical activity for, for your mental health and cognitive health is that people with mental illnesses in particular and or mental health challenges face specific challenges and barriers, not just what Meg’s mentioned in terms of the environment or financial stigma, but motivation can be difficult.
Feeling isolated, then overcoming the feeling of apathy can just seem overwhelming. And having a bit of knowledge in a place to start is just an additional tool in the toolkit that they can help people to self manage, empower people to take their own steps. And I guess what it comes down to is what’s meaningful for the person. And similarly when you’re communicating your science, it’s got to be in a way that’s meaningful to your audience. What is it that’s going to help them right now to get to where they want to be?
Yeah, such good advice because I, I guess some those ideas that if you’re able to communicate them effectively, it really can make a huge difference to people’s lives. And sometimes yeah, we have to kind of remember to put ourselves in the shoes of the person listening or the people listening. So I think that’s great advice Niamh.
And we have come to that time of the podcast where we must shift gears a little bit now and we’ve been asking some you know, some big questions. Now it’s time for some little questions. So these are the, the lighthearted rapid fire questions.
We’ll do three of them I think today, Jen.
That’s a deal.
So first question off the rank.
If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
And maybe Niamh we might start with you.
Well, I don’t think I’d be a triangle player.
Oh, that’s what I was hoping your answer was going to be Niamh.
Oh, that’s a tough one.
Probably… Look, I’ll be honest, I’ve, I’ve already got this career as well. It’s mum.
Wonderful choice of career.
What about you Megs?
Oh look, I think the obvious answer is singer songwriter would be fabulous.
But I also sometimes have this dream on those days when I’m getting barreled with emails and I just can’t keep up I think… Working in a library would be quite nice, wouldn’t it? I don’t envisage there be too many emails coming through, or perhaps that’s, that’s a little bit old-school of me to think that way. But yeah, something without emails would be lovely.
Oh, hear hear. Can you tell me what that job is, the job without emails? ‘Cause I want it too.
OK you, you both mentioned music of some description in your responses, even if it was the, the humble triangle. So I have to know as people who care about physical exercise. Have you got a favourite song or genre of music that really makes you feel pumped up and fired up and wanting to get out and exercise?
I think Michael and I you know, we need to start making a song list, I think a playlist.
I am pretty eclectic when it comes to music and it really depends on my mood as to what playlist I’m going to listen to. I’ve got a upbeat to move your feet playlist on, online where that’s you know, a bit more fast music, shall we say?
And then I’ve gotta chill out to workout playlist as well, which has got more folky music. But look, one song that will always get me pumped up is “Life Is A Highway”. That, the start of that song, that harmonica, that will always get me in the mood to get out, dance, run, walk, whatever it might be.
OK, I’m writing that down. I’m adding it to my running playlist. Thank you, Megan.
How about you Niamh? Have you got a particular song?
I don’t have a particular song. I’m, I’m also quite eclectic. Strangely enough I was recently running to some marching music, just just heavy percussion. I do like drums and and and base, but I don’t have a particular song. And similarly to Megs yes, it’s all about the mood and and sometimes it’s just the birds singing I want to listen to.
Yep, I hear you.
Or a good podcast like this one.
Oh, thank you for the lovely plug. We’ll take that anytime.
Yeah, I listen to a lot of audiobooks.
Maybe we need to cater for the listeners who are jogging and really kind of up the tempo. I don’t know.
We could record while we go running Michael.
How would that sound? Bit of huffing and puffing?
I’m sure it would be great. Yeah well, the ideas would be great, but I don’t know about the sound quality.
Yeah, maybe not.
So Megs, you sing. Michael, you can huff and puff and I’ll play the triangle and Jen…
I’m happy to sing too.
You can sing.
Yeah, I’m happy. I can do backups. Yep, happy.
We just need to come up with a name for our band.
Alrighty, so final question that I’d like to ask you both.
You’ve given us some great advice already, you know, especially when it comes to science communication.
But if you had to pick one top tip for effective science communication, what would it be? And maybe Megan would you like to take this one first?
Sure I, and I think I mentioned this before, but just keeping it simple and avoiding that jargon. Gotta make scicomm accessible to everybody. Keep it simple and so the key messages can get through.
Excellent advice and Niamh.
So that would have been my advice too is keep it simple. But I, I’ll just say umm, I guess similar to what I mentioned earlier, keep it meaningful for your audience. So simple for one audience is not necessarily simple for another.
So our science audience hopefully, will potentially might have a better grip on some of the jargon that might slip out every now and then. But if we’re talking to kids or people who have got English as a second language it’s, it’s a different story. So keeping it at the level for your audience I think it’s important.
Yeah, excellent advice. Well thank you so much Megan and Niamh for coming on the podcast. That was really enjoyable.
I’ve taken lots of notes that I’m going to be able to implement.
So thank you for that excellent information and for demonstrating some excellent science communication there as well.
So much appreciated.
Thanks so much for having me.
Yeah, thanks so much Megan and Niamh.
And that was really interesting and I think it’s important information for us all to know.
So thanks for making time for us.
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners for your support.
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