Dr Grace McKeon awarded ESSA Medal for PhD thesis

Grace McKeon profile photo

Dr Grace McKeon’s PhD thesis ‘Using digital technology to promote physical activity in trauma exposed populations’ was awarded the prestigious 2022 Exercise & Sport Science Australia (ESSA) Medal. This highly competitive award recognises the most outstanding Australian PhD thesis in Exercise and Sports Science related fields.

Dr Mckeon is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the School of Population Health. 

What is the key focus of your PhD thesis?

Trauma exposure is associated with poor physical and mental health outcomes. Lifestyle psychiatry investigates how lifestyle behaviours such as exercise and diet, impact the onset and treatment of psychiatric disorders. In my thesis, I studied novel and scalable strategies to support people exposed to trauma, including emergency service workers, to adopt healthy lifestyle behaviours.  This involved exploring the use of digital technologies and peer support. Through a mixed-methods approach and co-design strategies, I conducted three pilot studies, a stepped-wedge trial and two reviews. This work generated new knowledge about the feasibility, efficacy and adaptability of digital lifestyle programs.

What motivated you to take up this topic? 

With a background in exercise physiology, I have always been interested in physical activity promotion for health. Working in the psychiatric wards at St Vincent’s and Prince of Wales made me consider this though a social lens, recognising the link between social disadvantage, mental illness and chronic disease. Physical activity is a privilege, and commercial gyms are often unaffordable and do not cater for complex mental or physical health needs. This motivated me to explore scalable methods for promoting lifestyle behaviours which meet the needs of individuals. My work now aims to provide safe and accessible opportunities for people to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviours for mental health.

How has this research benefited the community?

I conducted the first trial to show that an online exercise program can be an effective mental health strategy for emergency service workers and their families. I trained eight peers with lived experience of being an emergency service worker to co-facilitate the program. These peers provided emotional support and led by example to motivate participants. This not only led to low drop out (<10%), but also benefited the peers, who reported feeling a sense of purpose by being able to give back to their community. The health professionals and peers played important and complementary roles, and I’m most excited by the potential of this model of care.

I also showed that the digital program can be adapted to other populations at risk of poor mental health including parents of children with genetic epilepsy and older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who did you collaborate with to achieve these outcomes?

he studies in my thesis are the result of established partnerships and co-design processes.

I worked closely with the founders of ex-service community organisation, Behind the Seen, an organisation which aims to improve the mental health and well-being of emergency service workers and their families. This partnership was formed >5 years ago by my supervisor A/Prof Simon Rosenbaum, and this strong relationship allowed for the co-design of the digital lifestyle program with founders Ronnie and Ross, who also supported recruitment and delivery of the program. I later partnered with other organisations to adapt the program including the Sydney Children’s Hospital and Genetic Epilepsy Australia.

Read more about this research

July 2023

Postdoctoral fellow Grace McKeon
Postdoctoral fellow
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