PhD candidate Tom Bergen standing in front of the Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa sign after receiving a mihi whakatau into the organisation in 2021.
Encouraging adolescents to develop good physical activity behaviours is the focus of PhD candidate Tom Bergen, who believes that habits formed at this time of life can stay with a person forever.
As teenagers near the end of their high school days, he says, the amount of physical activity they take part in drops off, sometimes as a result of a change in finances and support systems or finding themselves in a sedentary job.
Bergen, who is completing his PhD with the school of Public Health at Otago's campus in Wellington, says that is concerning.
“It's a really important time of life because that's when a lot of development occurs .”
As part of his research, Bergen has referred to several sets of national data regarding people's exercise habits taking into account various barriers different parts of the demographic may face in their attempt to exercise.
He has considered issues such as social support, and physical literacy – whether people have the skills required to be physically active, or the time – as well as sociodemographic factors like disability, gender and ethnicity.
He is developing a simulation model using this data to see, in the future, what interventions may work to create sustainable physical activity and how they'll differ for each group of people.
Bergen presenting some of his work at an academic conference in Abu Dhabi in 2022.
Bergen says he understands people may hold negative attitudes towards physical activity, citing teachers who have their high school students run laps as a form of punishment, but wants them to know that physical activity 'done right' has amazing benefits.
In an attempt to reframe exercise as a positive thing, he is making a point of connecting physical activity with wellbeing – mentally, spiritually and socially, trying to conceptualise wellbeing and how physical activity can affect it.
“What are the different benefits that could come from [physical activity] and in what situation.”
Bergen was one of three winners of the inaugural Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa PhD scholarships for postgraduate study in 2021.
The $27,000 stipend and paid tuition fees each year has helped him “immensely”, he says, enabling him to attend conferences in the United Arab Emirates and Sweden, as well as working alongside people around Aotearoa, including his iwi in Taranaki.
He would like to travel once he graduates and put to use his knowledge about physical activity, either in work or further research.
“I think that would be really rewarding.”
-Kōrero by internal communications adviser, Koren Allpress