Physical Activity and Health

Physical Activity and Health examines from a multi-disciplinary perspective the relationship between physical activity, sedentary behaviour and health in children, adolescents, adults and clinical populations.  This research priority area encompasses determinants of physical activity and sedentary behaviour, quantification of physical activity and sedentary behaviour using technology, the effects of physical activity and sedentary behaviour on both cardiometabolic and mental health, and the development, evaluation and implementation of interventions designed to promote physical activity and decrease sedentary behaviour at programme and policy levels.

The physical activity and health research priorities are aligned with international and national population and public health agenda.  Our current research projects focus on addressing inactivity, on understanding factors that influence behaviour 

change and on the role of physical activity and health as a form of preventive medicine and health promotion.  Our research is  funded by the various agencies including the Health Research Board, Horizon 2020 and ERASMUS+.  public health policy.  We  align with the priorities of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Health  and Healthy Ireland and the Department of Tourisim, Transport and Sport and the Department of Education and Skills, and to the Forfas “connected health”. It is also a repeating theme in EU research funding. An increasing international emphasis on the role of physical activity in preventative health means that this field continues to grow in importance.  The area has substantial synergy with other research within the University, nationally and internationally. 

Physical Activity and Health in PESS
Information on how physical activity and sedentary behaviour contribute to health is needed to inform national level health guidelines and policy. The research work undertaken by our group has utilised technology to accurately quantify activity and sedentary levels, and relate these measured behaviours to both health and the behavioural determinants.  Publications based on these research findings have been widely reported and discussed in the national media, and referenced at government level.  Members of the group have contributed to Ireland’s national physical activity guidelines “Get Ireland Active”, Ireland’s “Physical Activity Plan”, Ireland’s 2014 report card on physical activity in children and youth and to the national GP exercise referral scheme.  The group hosted the 2015 International Conference on Ambulatory Measurement of Physical Activity and Movement (ICAMPAM).

Physical activity and health is a central theme of the CPAHR and PE PAYS Ireland research centres within PESS.  Prof. Donnelly leads the multi-disciplinary Centre for Physical Activity and Health Research (CPAHR) at the University of Limerick. The centre includes 14 academics from across the University and within PESS is supported by 2 Professors/associate Professors , 5 active academic researchers, 2 postdocs and 5 PhD students. It is a multi-disciplinary research centre linking researchers in Sport Sciences, clinical therapies, medicine and electronic engineering. Significant expertise in the areas of health, physical activity and sedentary behaviour and determinant measurement are available through the centre. The centre specialises in both activity behaviour measurement and associated determinant profile, and has significant experience of processing and analysing data from worn devices such as accelerometers.  The research centre has developed a range of proprietary software to analyse large volumes of accelerometry data for activity levels and for sedentary behaviour and a new determinants questionnaire for adolescent physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

Current research projects in Physical Activity and Health in PESS

MoveforLife - An evaluation of a peer mentoring intervention designed to cascade and consequently up-scale existing programmes to help inactive 50+ become more active.  The purpose of the MoveforLife research study is to improve the physical activity participation and health of people aged over 50. The research team, being led by UL’s Professor Catherine Woods, brings together expertise from sport and exercise science, medicine, physiotherapy, psychology, implementation science and the community.The activity programmes will be operated out of eight hubs, four in Clare and four in Limerick and each will run for between eight and 12 weeks.  Move for Life is a partnership between UL and its local communities as well as the National University of Ireland Galway, Limerick and Clare Local Sports Partnerships, Age and Opportunity, Limerick City and County Council, Healthy Limerick and the Health Services Executive. The Move for Life research project is funded under the Health and Positive Aging Initiative (HaPAI), led by the Department of Health and is a joint national programme with the Health Service Executive and Atlantic Philanthropies. Members of the public who would like to take part can register at or attend an induction evening.   MoveforLife Press Release

Physical activity, sedentary behaviour, diet and health in adolescents. Prof. Alan Donnelly, Dr. Ciaran MacDonncha, Dr. Matthew Herring  (2010-2018). This long term research programme has included the first published research on directly-measured sedentary behaviour in adolescents.  The recently completed phase 1 of the Health Research Institute funded Limerick Adolescents study has generated a significant database of the health determinants, behaviours and outcomes in a population of 260 adolescents, generating a significant database now being exploited for a range of publications in this field.

Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity (CSPPA)
Action 50 of the National Physical Activity Plan calls for the ‘establishment of a systematic, regular and long-term national surveillance system to monitor physical activity levels in each of the NPAP target groups’. This follow-up study to the Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity Study (CSPPA17-18) will help to provide quality surveillance data on the current physical activity levels of Irish children and youth. This multi-centre study, led by the University of Limerick (PR Prof. Catherine Woods), will bring together Ireland’s best expertise from the respective fields of physical activity, physical education, sport and coaching studies, epidemiology, public health and statistics.  It will replicate and improve on CSPPA09-10, and use the experience of academics within the University of Limerick, University College Cork, Dublin City University and Ulster University to conduct CSPPA17-18. Funding agency: Sport Ireland and Healthy Ireland €288,613  More details on CSPPA17-18,

Training Interventions and Genetics of Exercise Response (TIGER) Study.  Dr. Matthew Herring collaborates with Professor Molly Bray (TIGER Study PI; University of Texas at Austin) and Professor Rod Dishman (University of Georgia) on a large, population-based study designed to examine the effect of genetic variation on exercise dose, response, and compliance in an ethnically-diverse sample of young adults (N=3,590).  Participants completed three weekly 30-min sessions of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise for 15 weeks as a part of the University curriculum.  Exercise intensity was continuously monitored during each exercise session to allow total exercise dose to be quantified as a heart rate physical activity score (HRPAS), which serves as an empirical criterion for compliance with prescribed exercise dose.  Body composition and psychological outcomes were measured and plasma samples were taken at baseline and after 15 weeks of exercise training.  Dr. Herring’s collaborative work with TIGER data primarily focuses on exercise effects on anxiety, depression, and sleep and plausible genetic and non-genetic markers, particularly serotonergic and inflammatory pathways, of exercise dose, response, and compliance.  Data analyses and manuscript preparation are ongoing, and additional funding proposals are pending.

Prevention Research in Mood and Exercise (PRIME) Study.  The PRIME study is a collaboration with between Dr. Matthew Herring, Professor Molly Bray (University of Texas at Austin), and Professor Rod Dishman (University of Georgia) designed to investigate serotonergic and inflammatory factors and genetic variation as mechanisms of the effects of exercise on anxiety and depressive symptoms among young adults.  The PRIME Study leverages existing resources eveloped as part of the TIGER Study (PI: Bray) to: 1) determine the associations between inflammatory factors, adiposity, NTs, and their interactions and anxiety and/or depression in young adults; 2) evaluate the temporal effects of exercise on inflammatory factors, adiposity, and NTs to examine if change in anxiety and/or depression is mediated by changes in these factors; and, 3) examine the interaction of genetic variation in genes in inflammation, adiposity, and neural signaling pathways with mental health risk factors as mechanisms of anxiety and/or depression before and after exercise training. At baseline, week 5, week 10, and post exercise intervention (week 15), symptoms of anxiety and depression and obesity-related outcomes were measured, and plasma samples were obtained by venipuncture. The PRIME Study uses these biological samples to quantify cytokines and kynurenine/tryptophan ratio, and will examine genetic variation in inflammation, adiposity, and neural signaling pathways. A series of strong analytical techniques, including multivariate regression, structural equation modeling, linear mixed models, high-density-SNP-array regressions (HD-Reg), and Bayesian network analysis will be used to determine how inflammatory factors, adiposity, serotonergic factors, and their interactions account for variability in anxiety and/or depression, to evaluate whether these factors mediate exercise effects on anxiety and/or depression, and to examine how variation in anxiety and/or depression before and after exercise is associated with interactions among genetic variants related to adiposity, serotonergic signaling, and inflammation. Data analyses are ongoing and funding proposals are pending.

Clinical Populations

PATHway: Physical activity towards health is a Horizon 2020 research project.  It combines the work of partners from Ireland, Greece, the Netherlands, UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland), Italy, Germany and Belgium, including Prof. Woods from the PESS, to provide individualised mHealth (mobile health) rehabilitation pathways for individuals living with established cardiovascular disease (CVD).  PATHway’s primary aim is to increase daily minutes of physical activity, this is enabled through cutting edge technology for intervention delivery and underpinned by behavioural change theory.  The secondary aims are i) to improve other lifestyle related behaviours  associated with improved CVD score, ii) to understand the optimal use of technology for achieving these improvements in behaviour and for encouraging social interaction between participants as they engage in the programme, and iii) to develop an efficient communication system for providing regular accessible feedback to the participant, but also for providing progress reports to the participant’s primary healthcare provider.   This project is funded through Horizon 2020; €4.9 million, it is for 44 months, and we are half way through and about to embark on a 6-month randomised controlled trial. 

Physical Activity and Cancer:   This research seeks to develop a home-based physical activity programme for cancer survivors.  In collaboration with DCU, and guided by the MRC framework, the formative first study evaluated current knowledge and practices of oncology healthcare professionals in Ireland in relation to physical activity promotion, study two asked cancer survivors and their healthcare providers what they would like from a home-based physical activity intervention, and we are currently embarking on developing and conducting a feasibility trial for this intervention.  This work is funded by the Irish Cancer Society, €120,000 over four years.

Mechanisms of Exercise Effects on Anxiety, Depression, and Fatigue in People with Multiple Sclerosis.  In collaboration with Professor Susan Coote, Dr. Matthew Herring is investigating serotonergic and inflammatory markers as plausible mechanisms of exercise effects on an emerging mental health symptom triad of anxiety, depression, and fatigue in a sample of 65 relatively young, recently diagnosed people with Multiple Sclerosis who completed the Step It Up randomized controlled trial.  Step It Up investigated the effect of twice per week aerobic and resistance exercise training on walking mobility and mental health outcomes.  Group exercise was combined with a theory-based education component for augmenting the effect of exercise on walking outcomes and sustaining these changes over time.  Outcomes were assessed baseline, week 12, week 24, and week 36, and plasma samples were obtained from a sub-sample of participants at baseline and week 12.  Analyses are ongoing and additional funding proposals are planned.

Effects of Acute and Chronic Exercise Among Young Adults with Subclinical or Clinical Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  Dr. Matthew Herring and members of his research group are conducting a series of studies designed to investigate acute and chronic effects of aerobic and resistance exercise on symptoms of worry, anxiety, and depression, and feelings of energy and fatigue among individuals with subclinical (i.e., significant elevations in worry) and clinical Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  These studies also examine plausible mechanisms of exercise effects, including attentional biases (measured with eye-tracking while viewing emotional facial stimuli) and rumination.  Data collection, analysis, and manuscript preparation are ongoing, and additional funding proposals are planned.  Recruitment for two studies is ongoing.  If interested in participating, contact Dr. Herring or Brett Gordon (

Children & Young People
The Healthy Ireland Demonstration Project (HIDP) is being run by UL and UCD in conjunction with the Healthy Ireland and the Department of Education and Skills.  Along with other collaborators from DCU, MIC, RCSI and Southampton University, the HIDP aims to develop and test the efficacy of a complex school-based intervention to increase physical activity, reduce sedentary behaviour and promote healthy eating in adolescents.  This work is funded through St. Vincent’s Charity and UL, €150,000 and is due to begin in June 2017. UL has staffed a postdoctoral researcher – Dr Kwok Ng, and a PhD student – Ms Fiona McHale to work on HIDP.

Be Active ASAP (After School Activity Programme):  This programme offers a safe, familiar and convenient setting for an age-appropriate introduction to after-school physical activity for 7-8 year old children.  It is led by teachers who are trained to work with volunteer parents in order to provide quality opportunities to be active based on the primary school physical education curriculum.  Its aim is to improve the physical activity patterns of school children by introducing them, and their parents, to a wide variety of activities in a fun, supportive, positive environment.  See for information on the programme.  With colleagues in MIC and DCU, we are currently evaluating the efficacy of this programme in eight primary schools.  This project is funded by the Health Services Executive, €46,000 over two years, it commenced in February 2017.

Keeping Youngsters Involved.  Many adolescents dropout of youth sport during their teenage years.  How we prevent dropout is an important research question?  Collaborators from the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and Romania are working with HEPA Europe (see to gain insight into this research question, with the aim of developing an intervention and sharing best practice in order to address this issue across Europe.  This project is funded by ERASMUS+, €457,000 over three years and commenced in January 2017.

Physical Activity Policy 
Policy is about changing systems not people.  PA or SB systems and how they operate globally, nationally and locally need to be understood in order to provide healthy environments that enhance PA and reduce SB.  We are begining the process of establishing a systematic method for PA public and private sector policy evaluation, and as part of a European (and global) network of public-interest organisations and researchers we aim to monitor, benchmark and support public and private sector actions to create healthy PA/SB environments, reduce obesity, diet-related NCDs and their related inequalities.  Achievements to date include advising the first national physical activity plan in Ireland (Woods and MacDonnacha) and future work under the ‘Policy Evaluation Network’ JPI is due to commence in Summer 2017.

Recently Completed Studies
European Joint Programme Initiative (JPI): Determinants of Diet and Physical Activity; Knowledge Hub to integrate and develop infrastructure for research across Europe (DEDIPAC 2013-2017) The DEDIPAC project in Ireland was funded by the Health Research Board (€700,000 in total, €340,000 for Physical Activity). The Limerick team contributed to different thematic areas of the knowledge hub, principally on measurement of activity and sedentary behaviour, and the understanding of the determinants of diet, physical activity and sedentary behaviour.  (see EU JPI DEDIPAC).

Student Activity and Sports Study Ireland (2014-2015). This study measured current levels of participation and provision in physical activity and sport across third level institutions in Ireland (N = 10,000). The study was co-led by Professor Woods and Dr Mac Donnacha and involved collaboration with DCU, WIT and University of Ulster. This research was funded by Student Sport Ireland (€118,000).

Physical Activity Report Card (2014/2016). Professor Woods and Professor Donnelly were major contributors to this Irish national report (co-written by a consortium of Irish academic institutions) reporting on the levels of physical activity and sedentary behavior in children and adolescents. This was the first time that such an overview (equivalent to a meta-analysis of studies to date) was undertaken, and the purpose was to make government bodies aware of participation and activity levels in this population.

Michelstown Study (2015) Dr. Cormac Powell, Prof. Alan Donnelly and Dr. Brian Carson collaborated with the Dept. of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College Cork on a large cohort study of lifestyle behaviours in nearly 1,500 people aged 50+ who live in and around Michelstown Co. Cork.  The UL group collected data on sedentary behaviour and physical activity in the participants using the activPAL accelerometer/inclinometer device, and compared these behaviours with the large battery of nutrition and health related measures being collected by the UCC researchers.  

Key Contacts in Physical Activity and Health within PESS

Prof. Alan Donnelly

Prof. Catherine Woods
Dr. Ciaran MacDonncha

Dr Matthew Herring
+353 61 234762

Dr Kwok Ng
Postdoc Researcher - Healthy Ireland Demonstration Project

Dr Enrique Garcia Bengoechea
EHS Research Fellow - Physical Activity & Health


Physical Activity and Health Publications (click link)