Dr Kate Edwards

Expert Q&A: Introducing Dr Kate Edwards

1) Could you tell us a little about your career and areas of expertise/interest? 

My research career has been in looking at how exercise affects health through its actions on immune function. My PhD and early work focused on vaccinations and how exercise can boost your immune response and reduce the adverse effects you experience. In recent years I’ve also developed a line of work in oncology, using exercise to improve treatment outcomes during chemo and immunotherapy, and again, reducing the side effects of treatment (exercise really is a wonder drug!).


2) What drew you to this line of work/research in the first place? 

I studied Biochemistry at University but by the end of my degree wanted to get out of ‘the petri dish’. I found that I loved the study and life at uni but wanted to do things that everyone on every corner of the street could relate to. That’s how I found myself doing a PhD in a Sport Science department, they liked me as I brought lab skills to measurements from experiments, and I liked it as I got to work with real-life people. After PhD I had an opportunity to work in research in California for a few years, and about 10 years ago moved here to Sydney to teach and research in my current position. Some could say I’d followed the sun, but it’s not hard to find more than I used to see in England.


3) How do you look after your own physical and mental wellbeing?

A long time ago I played international-level sport, so exercise and sport have been part of my life forever. Sport looks after a lot of my wellbeing because of the social support and interaction that it provides as well as the running around. Whenever moving to a new place (and I’ve done that a lot) the way I made friends was to join a team. Exercise training for a long time was what I did to help me play sport, but now it’s a habit, I feel worse if I’m not moving, which motivates me to move!  


4) Do you have a favourite post-workout cafe?

No, I’m a universal coffee lover, I enjoy an instant coffee and a real one similarly!


5) What is one thing you wish people knew about wellbeing? 

Exercise does as much for mental health as it does for physical health.


6) What is one of the most ridiculous things you’ve read or seen about wellbeing that you know to be untrue?

Current discussions about vaccination safety is a hot-bed of miss-truths and misunderstanding.


7) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or websites on health or wellbeing that you’d recommend?

Current hot topic is ‘The Long Shot’ discussing the development of the COVID vaccinations, and I often find gems of episodes among the RadioLab series.


8) What is your top tip for living a healthy and happy life? 

Most of the time Grandma was right – meals are best home-made, eat/drink everything in moderation, and walk everyday and you’ll do pretty well.


Research Review: The Impact of Fruit and Vegetable Intake on Perceived Stress

In this article, our expert Dr Kate Edwards – Associate Professor in Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Sydney – reviews Fruit and vegetable intake is inversely associated with perceived stress across the adult lifespan by Radavelli-Bagatini et al. 2021, and breaks it down to give us the vital parts we need to know. 

1) What was the high-level summary of the research?

The study found that reported perceived stress levels were associated with fruit and vegetable intake in adult Australians, with those people eating the most fruit and vegetables (>473g/day) reporting lower perceived stress than those eating the least (≤243 g/day). The World Health Organisation recommends eating 400g/day of fruit and vegetables. When looking at the effect across the different age groups,  it was found that the positive associations were greatest in adults between the ages of ≥45-<65 years.


2) How was the study undertaken & what was it trying to measure? 

The data came from a large study, the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle (AusDiab) Study. AusDiab is a national population-based survey of Australian adults aged ≥25 years, recruited in 1999–2000 (AusDiab1), they also included data from the 5-year follow up in 2004-2005. This study included 8689 adults at baseline and 5031 at 5 years follow up.


3) What did the study find? 

First the study looked at the cross-sectional association (looking at the data at a single time point) and found that fruit and vegetable intake was associated with perceived stress. They then added into their model other factors that might also be associated with stress and that could attenuate the effects, like overall energy intake, physical activity, smoking, age, sex, BMI, relationship status, socio-economic index and chronic disease. Even accounting for all those factors, fruit and vegetable intake was still associated with perceived stress. Interestingly, when they looked at the change in fruit and vegetable intake over time, perceived stress was not associated, which the authors suggest means that fruit and vegetables might reduce perceived stress rather than stress leading to reduced fruit and vegetable intake.


4) Is there any other research out there that supports these findings or contradicts it? 

This data is similar in findings to other studies but is much more representative of the whole population. Prior studies have found similar associations in pregnant women and students and have included smaller numbers of people. The data is 20 years old, but Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests there has been little change in fruit and vegetable intake between 2007-2018.


5) What’s the key takeaway for us to take from this research?

Public health messaging about fruit and vegetable consumption might be well targeted to middle-aged adults, as the association between perceived stress and fruit and vegetable intake was strongest in that group, and if the effect can be confirmed the messaging of anti-stress effects could be powerful.


6) Will you be doing anything differently because of this research? 

This study suggests accounting for diet and in particular fruit and vegetable intake in stress research is important, and suggests that work examining the effect of diet interventions should be considered.

Research Review: Mental Health’s Impact on Physical Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this article, our expert Dr Kate Edwards – Associate Professor in Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Sydney – reviews A mental health paradox: Mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic by Marashi et al. 2021 and breaks it down to give us the vital parts we need to know. 

1) What was the high-level summary of the research? 

This study from Canada found worsening of mental health and reduced physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The proportion of respondents reporting feeling stressed ‘Fairly often’, ‘Often’, or ‘Very often’ increased from 45% pre-pandemic to 67% during the pandemic. Aerobic activity decreased by 22 minutes, and strength -based activity decreased by 32minutes. The authors found that barriers to physical activity shifted from primarily time (from 42% reporting as a barrier down to 16%), to lack of access/equipment (from 5% up to 46%). But results showed an interesting paradox with mental health being both a motivator and barrier to physical activity. People wanted to be active to improve their mental health but found it difficult to be active due to their poor mental health. For example, anxiety relief as a motivation to exercise was reported at greater frequency during the pandemic (+14%), but increased anxiety was also reported as a barrier at greater frequency (+8%).


2) How was the study undertaken & what was it trying to measure? 

This simple internet survey was completed by 1669 people, mostly women (82%), and mostly 18-65 years (90.8%). Questionnaires asked about current (during the pandemic) and past (per-pandemic) mental health, stress, physical activity habits and barriers and motivators to physical activity as well as demographics.


3) Is there any other research out there that supports these findings or contradicts it? 

Many other studies have shown reductions in physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic across many countries with different lockdown timing and severity, and across all age groups. The relationship between physical activity and mental health is very well established, with studies showing that regular exercise is often more effective than medication at relieving depression symptoms. 


4) What’s the key takeaway for us to take from this research?

This study is interesting as it hints that there are divergent effects of the pandemic, for some people the pandemic increased motivators /reduced barriers and they became more active, and their mental health improved. But for others the reverse occurred, physical activity reduced as barriers increased and motivators decreased, and with that their mental health suffered. What we don’t know is why those different effects were seen, and that’s important, because as practitioners we want to know who it’s most important to support.

The research on physical activity effects of the current pandemic are often this style of internet based questionnaire, but they often bring bias. As here, often women are the predominant responders, they are usually highly educated and younger than the general population. This means we are missing a lot of information about other groups in society and need to consider ways to reach those in our work to understand and to support.

Research Review: The Mixed Benefits of a Stressor-Free Life

In this article, our expert Dr Kate Edwards – Lecturer in Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Sydney – reviews the mixed benefits of a stressor-free life at Emotion 2021 Charles et al. and breaks it down to give us the vital parts we need to know. 


A life with no stress, that might sound idyllic to some, but new research has shown it comes with some downsides too.

Most stress research has focussed on the effects of lots of stress, and mostly we find that high levels of stress have negative effects on physical and psychological heath. 

But what about no stress at all, would that be the healthiest possible option?

What did the study measure?

In this study researchers asked 2,804 people about their experience every day for a week and identified a group (10% of the whole) who reported no stress events at all. Then they looked at their health. 

What did the study find?

These people were pretty healthy, they reported higher levels of daily well-being (i.e., higher positive affect and lower negative affect) and fewer chronic illnesses than those who reported stressors. 

But they also had less active daily lives and lower levels of cognitive function. So why might a stress-fee life not be the greatest thing? 

Well, in this study the people identified as stress-free had less activity and less social connection. They both offered and received emotional support less often from others and they reported fewer daily positive experiences. 

So, it might be that life was stress free, but also more boring!

It’s not surprising that those with no stressors were less socially active, because it’s known that social interactions are the most common source of daily stress or uplifts. 

How much weight should we give this research?

What this study didn’t measure was participants social network size and they only measured over a one-week period, so more data is needed to generalise the findings further.

What’s the key takeaway from this research?

The finding that cognitive function was lower in stress free people might be related to the lower levels of activity and interaction, the old adage says ‘use it or lose it’ and that could be what’s being found here. If we don’t experience events (both positive and negative) we don’t get to solve problems, resolve an argument or think through the best options, and doing all those things help keep our brains functioning well.