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Q&A with Associate Professor Verity Cleland



Researcher Q&A


Q&A with Associate Professor Verity Cleland

Improving cardiovascular health through walking and cycling for transport: advancing understanding of active commuting behaviours among adults

Associate Professor Verity Cleland is a Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow and a behavioural epidemiologist with a primary interest in understanding and promoting physical activity. Associate Professor Cleland works with state and local governments and non-government organisations to conduct research that aims to improve human health and wellbeing locally, nationally and internationally.

What are you currently researching?

Being regularly active helps to prevent heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. However, many Australian adults aren't active enough to gain these health benefits.

Walking and cycling for transport ('active transport') and using public transport are simple ways to get more activity into your day. They are also great for the environment as less cars on the road means less pollution. The two main goals of my research are:

1) to better understand the reasons why some people use active and public transport while others don't, and

2) to develop and test strategies that might help more people use active and public transport.

What difference will your research make to people’s cardiovascular health in Australia?

Regular physical activity improves heart health as it helps to manage weight; improve blood cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels; and reduce inflammation. It also benefits our mental health and wellbeing by triggering the release of dopamine, a hormone which can improve our mood. By managing these risk factors, regular physical activity reduces our chances of getting cardiovascular disease, having to go to hospital, and dying early.

What motivated you to do your research?

It has always made more sense to me to avoid getting sick in the first place, rather than try to reverse an illness once it is already established. Health conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke can be challenging to manage in the long-term. They are costly to the persons affected and our overburdened health care system. They also have a major impact on quality of life. With Australians living longer than ever before, physical activity is a simple, low-cost and effective way to improve people’s health and lower their risks of long-term health conditions.

Are there any achievements or discoveries from the past year you can share with us?

One project has focused on understanding 'walkability' – how easy it is to walk in small rural communities in Tasmania. We used a citizen science approach, where community members collect information about how easy or hard it is to walk around their town. We then meet with our community members to review the data they have collected (including photos), talk about the main issues and identify possible solutions.

We found that in a number of these towns, the lack of physical connections – such as a major highway that cuts the town in half – are major barriers to walking. They also often result in social disconnection where community members are 'cut off' or isolated from others due to where they live and/or work. Some of the communities we have worked with have used our reports to lobby their council to make changes to the environment to support more physical activity.

In a pilot randomised controlled trial, we offered free bus trips ('incentives') to see if this would increase bus use and physical activity. Objective information on participants’ bus use (from their public transport smartcard) and physical activity (from activity monitors) was collected, then participants were randomly allocated to an intervention group (incentives-based program) or a control group (no incentives) for 16 weeks. When we measured public transport and physical activity again after 16 weeks, we saw that people who received the incentives caught the bus more and reported more physical activity for transport than those people who were in the control group. We are now testing this in a larger study funded by the Medical Research Future Fund with a larger sample including a broader range of participants.

What role has Heart Foundation funding had in your career journey?

My Heart Foundation funding makes an enormous difference to me and my research, as it funds my salary and contributes to some of my projects. It provides me with some job security and a platform upon which I can build and value-add to with new projects and staff. Without this funding, I would not be able to work in research.

Do you have a message for Heart Foundation supporters?

My vision is for a healthy, active Australia, and your generosity helps me to work towards that. My research strives to keep people well and stay out of our over-stretched hospitals. Thank you for your continued support of the Heart Foundation, and the research and researchers that they fund.

Last updated03 April 2024