MSFHR Senior Scholar receives Women of Distinction Award

30 June 2009

MSFHR Senior Scholar Dr. Heather McKay was recently honoured with a 2009 YWCA Vancouver Women of Distinction Award. McKay, who is at the forefront of research investigating the relationship between physical activity and children’s health, received the award in the Health & Active Living category at a ceremony June 3.

The award acknowledged her catalytic role in Action Schools! BC, a model that promotes physical activity and healthy eating in schools across the province. As the initiative’s Principal Investigator, McKay partnered with the BC Ministries of Health and Education and 2010 Legacies Now to champion a program that benefits more than 500,000 children in BC. “The profile of the Women of Distinction Award allows me to acknowledge the many, many individuals who have contributed to the success of Actions Schools! BC, such as the Action Schools! BC Support Team, and the many teachers and parents who recognize the epidemic of physical inactivity in our province,” says McKay, a Professor in the departments of Orthopaedics and Family Practice at UBC.

Research conducted in BC revealed that 45% of elementary school children had at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor and almost 30% were overweight or obese. In response to these findings, Action Schools! BC began as a pilot study of 514 children in grades four to seven in 10 schools. The model provided teacher training and resources, and facilitated the design of customized action plans for integrating physical activity and healthy eating into the school environment. An evaluation revealed the program significantly increased children's levels of physical activity and improved their heart health and bone health. Importantly, the activity program did not compromise children’s academic performance even though teachers engaged in less curricular time.

From those modest beginnings, uptake of the model expanded dramatically. Now more than 1,600 elementary and middle schools are registered in all BC school districts, and children from kindergarten to grade eight take part in Action Schools! BC. McKay is also working in an advisory capacity with Action Schools! BC and government partners to adapt the model for high schools. The model has already been adapted for Australian schools, for which McKay serves on an international advisory board. She is also responding to international interest in implementing Action Schools! BC in Europe and South Africa.

McKay and Dr. PJ Naylor from the University of Victoria served as co-Principal Investigators of a recently completed study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), of the large-scale dissemination of the model across BC. They are also funded by CIHR (with MSFHR Senior Scholar Dr. Louise Mâsse) to investigate factors (including policy) that are likely to affect the model’s sustainability. McKay stresses the importance of evaluating the program's effectiveness and communicating results to stakeholders. “You have to maintain these conversations and provide concrete evidence,” she says. “That’s the role of the research. We can back up all of our statements with evidence that we collected here in the province.”

McKay's research and her efforts to fully engage community stakeholders, including government, health authorities, teachers, parents and the children themselves, have been acknowledged nationally. In November 2008, at the Canadian Health Research Awards in Ottawa, she received a CIHR Knowledge Translation Award. “Creating, nurturing, and sustaining those key relationships that make models like Action Schools! BC a success is what CIHR saw value in,” says McKay.

She continues to expand her influential and comprehensive research program, which also includes one of the longest studies on children’s bone strength worldwide. “Others have looked at bone mass or bone density, but our Healthy Bones study is pioneering the study of children’s bone strength,” says McKay. “We’re also evaluating bone microstructure with some of the most sophisticated instruments in the world. We are fortunate that the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has supported this type of research, as it can impact health immediately.”

McKay was a member of the Musculoskeletal Research Centre: New Coordinated Applications for Bone Health that received a 2003 MSFHR Research Unit Award. “That award positioned us to be successful with CFI, CIHR and all of the funding agencies that support this research,” says McKay. “The MSFHR award really was pivotal in us going on and accruing other grant dollars to continue the research.”

As Director of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, affiliated with the University of BC and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, McKay is contributing to planning for the Robert N. Ho building that will house the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility and an extension of the Prostate Centre at VGH. The building is scheduled for completion in 2011.

While child health is her main research focus, McKay also investigates the connection between physical activity and bone strength in older populations. McKay says research that has implications across the lifespan is critical. “Every day we see the consequences of immobility, osteoporosis and fracture. We see what happens when seniors’ muscle strength declines and they begin to fall down. By investing in children, we have a fighting chance to prevent or limit these devastating events in later life.”