16 March 2021.

Social media has given rise to an era of self-proclaimed health ‘experts’ touting dietary quick-fixes that tap into our desire to live healthier lives. Few are backed by evidence, but the likes and views continue to grow.

Dr Melody Ding

All this home-made health advice only reinforces the need for scientific evidence, and Dr Melody Ding, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s Prevention Research Collaboration, is leading the way on lifestyle-related health research that cuts through the chatter.

In 2015, Melody attracted international media attention when her research revealed that the combination of physical inactivity, prolonged sitting, and too much sleep can be a strong predictor of early death. The work was cited in text books, and even made it into the Nursing Diagnosis Handbook.

Two years later, Melody set out to investigate another modern lifestyle choice – vegetarianism. After analysing over 260,000 Australians in the 45 and Up Study, she and her co-authors found that while vegetarians were more health-conscious, they didn’t actually have a lower risk of early death compared with meat-eaters. The findings not only sparked surprise, a slew of media coverage, and online editorials, they were also later cited in A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of Human Stress Response, and several popular science books.

Impact through awareness

While the academic recognition of Melody’s work is impressive, highlighted by thousands of citations, she says the most rewarding effect of her research has been increasing public knowledge about healthy diet and lifestyle.

“I can write the most prestigious papers that only get read by researchers interested in that area. Or I can make an extra effort to ensure the public gets to access this research,” she says. “Promoting an active, healthy and sustainable lifestyle is really important to me, so if I can reach a lot of people with my research, then I’m proud of that impact.”

That said, she’s quick to point out that it can be a moving feast. “Often people ask me: why are scientists saying we should do this exercise or eat this food one day, and a few years later you say we need to do something else?!” she laughs. “I see that as a natural process of scientific evolution. Sometimes, we are asking questions that weren’t asked before, sometimes we try to ask the same questions using a different approach. As the evidence advances, there’s going to be some confirmation of previous work, but sometimes we might change direction. But that’s all part of the process.”

With other papers on physical activity and sitting time, Melody’s work aims to answer the health questions of everyday modern life, such as – is sitting all day in front of a computer bad for us? (You bet it is). How about driving long distances every day? (even worse). However, her current work is taking a new focus on how our environment impacts our lifestyle and health.

“The 45 and Up Study gave me the opportunity to look at lifestyle and health-related outcomes,” she explains “and now I’m increasingly aware that lifestyle is not often a choice. Physical activity and diet can be so dependent on the environment we live in. For example, do we have access to sustainable and active transportation? Do we have access to stores without having to drive anywhere? Do we have safe parks and public spaces to go for a walk? I’m now trying to incorporate everything together in terms of looking at the environment, lifestyle and health outcomes, and 45 and Up is really helping me in that respect.”

How to create impact

Public engagement and media coverage is an important route to impact, and Associate Professor Melody Ding says that early career researchers can keep a few things in mind when promoting their work:

  • Try to get out there and have an impact early on. “In the first year after finishing my PhD I pitched the media about my research and from that I gained a lot of confidence speaking to the public. That was a good lesson!”
  • Don’t give up. “Things aren’t always linear and sometimes you work really hard for a long time and don’t see rewards. It can be very easy to get discouraged at that phase. But it is important to remember that setbacks and unsuccessful attempts are universal human experiences (even the most successful academics experience more often than you think). You are never alone, if you take a breath and survive that phase, good things can start happening.”
  • Authenticity is the key. “Academia is such a hyper-competitive environment and we’re all trying our best to get the best metrics so we can ‘succeed’. But it’s important to keep remembering what’s important to you and what brought you to health research in the first place. Chasing successes should never be at the cost of our authenticity, meaning and purpose, and morality.”

Meet other researchers who are using the 45 and Up Study for high-impact work.

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