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Physical Activity Lab

About the Physical Activity Lab 

The Physical Activity Lab is a research group in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University led by Professor Tessa Pollard. We are particularly interested in everyday mobilities, including walking. Much of our recent research has used ethnographic methods and social theory to explore experiences of interventions designed to increase physical activity. We are also interested in practices related to physical activity, including travel and food practices. In our work we aim both to inform public health research, but also to contribute to anthropological understandings of everyday health-related practices.

Tessa welcomes interest from students who would like to pursue the study of physical activity and everyday mobilities in the context of anthropology, particularly in the areas described above and below.

For quantitative projects, the Lab is well-equipped for the assessment of physical activity in everyday life. We own a large number of accelerometer-based physical activity monitors (e.g. Actigraphs for assessing activity during the day, Activpals for assessment of sedentary behaviours). Most of our current work is ethnographic, often mobile methods.



Current Research 

COAST: Evaluating Coastal Rural Communities’ Active and Sustainable Travel

Promoting sustainable active travel can be more challenging in rural areas. This project, funded by the School for Public Health Research, evaluates sustainable travel policies in rural and coastal communities in economically deprived contexts in the north-east and south-west of England. We’re exploring interventions such as cycling and walking promotion (e.g. provision of new dedicated paths) and on-demand bus services, using participatory mapping and ethnographic methods.  The project is led by Tessa Pollard and Conny Guell (University of Exeter).  Laura McGuire is the Durham researcher on this project.  Read more here.

Using Go-Along Interviews to Understand the Impact of Children’s Food Environment Interventions 

This project, funded by the National Institute of Health Research, examines the impact of a range of interventions targeting the food environments of children across London.  We’re using go-along interviews to explore families’ experiences of interventions in the local environment as part of a wider mixed methods study.  Dr Sabine Parrish is the anthropology researcher on this project.

Green Social Prescribing Pathways

This work builds on our NIHR-funded project on social prescribing and our earlier work on walking groups (see below), and focuses specifically on social prescribing into walking and gardening groups. Referral into walking and gardening groups has been hailed as a way to improve mental and physical health, partly through gentle physical activity. Our ethnographic approach considers how pathways linking patients and walking or gardening are experienced by patients, link workers and activity organisers. Tessa Pollard’s work on this project is funded by the Institute of Medical Humanities at Durham University, and Laura McGuire is conducting an ESRC-funded PhD on community gardens and social prescribing (see below).

Recent Research

The Impact of a Social Prescribing Intervention 

This project, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, used ethnographic methods to explore the experiences of those involved in a social prescribing intervention. Our aim was to provide an understanding of its delivery and its impact on everyday lives. We conducted participant observation with service users and with link workers delivering social prescribing. We also conducted interviews to explore social prescribing during the first COVID lockdown in the UK.

Prof Tessa Pollard and Prof Suzanne Moffatt at Newcastle University led the ethnographic component of the evaluation. Dr Kate Gibson, Dr Bethan Griffith, Dr Steph Morris and Dr Emily Tupper were the ethnographers working on the project.

Pollard T, Gibson K, Griffith B, Jeffries J, Moffatt S (2023) Implementation and impact of a social prescribing intervention: an ethnographic exploration. British Journal of General Practice 73: e789-e797.

Griffith B, Pollard T, Gibson K, Jeffries J, Moffatt S (2023) Constituting link working through choice and care: an ethnographic account of front-line social prescribing. Sociology of Health & Illness 45: 279-297.

Gibson K, Moffatt S, Pollard T (2022) ‘He called me out of the blue’: an ethnographic exploration of contrasting temporalities in a social prescribing intervention. Sociology of Health & Illness 44: 1149-1166.

Morris S, Wildman J, Gibson K, Moffatt S, Pollard T (2022) Managing disruption at a distance: unequal experiences of people living with long-term conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Social Science & Medicine 302: 114963.

Morris S, Gibson K, Wildman J, Griffith B, Moffatt S, Pollard T (2022) Social prescribing during the Covid-19 pandemic: a qualitative study of service providers’ and clients’ experiences. BMC Health Services Research 22: 258.

Gibson K, Pollard T, Moffatt S (2021) Social prescribing and classed inequality: a journey of upward health mobility? Social Science & Medicine 280: 114037.

Children’s Experiences of Active Travel to School

This project, funded by the School for Public Health Research, explored children’s experiences of school travel, especially in Healthy New Towns, and stakeholders’ experiences of planning and implementing active school travel interventions, with the aim of understanding better how to promote active school travel.  This project was led by Prof Tessa Pollard and Prof Carolyn Summerbell, also at Durham University, and was part of a wider study led by Dr Jenna Panter at the University of Cambridge.  Dr Steph Morris and Dr Emily Tupper were the Durham researchers on this project.

Tupper E, Morris S, Lawlor E, Summerbell C, Panter J, Jago R, Pollard T (2024) Children’s experiences of care on walking and cycling journeys between home and school in Healthy New Towns: reframing active school travel. Health & Place 85: 103147.

Lawlor E, Ellis K, Adams J, Jago R, Foley L, Morris, S, Pollard T et al (2023) Stakeholders’ experiences of what works in planning and implementing environmental interventions to promote active school travel: a systematic review and qualitative synthesis. Transport Reviews 43: 478-501.

Morris S, Lawlor E, Foley L, Summerbell C, Panter J, Adams, J, Jago R, Pollard T (2022) Children’s experiences of the journey between home and school: a qualitative synthesis using meta-ethnography. Health & Place 76:102819.

Walking Groups 

Walking is an accessible form of physical activity with numerous health benefits and promotion of walking has become prominent in public health campaigns. Walking groups, which have become increasingly common, are particularly popular amongst women and have great potential to help maintain women's walking as they age. We were funded by Durham University's Wolfson Institute to explore women’s experiences of walking groups in economically deprived areas of north east England and the contribution they make to women's physical activity, and to conduct a meta-ethnography of experiences of walking groups.

Pollard T, Guell C, Morris S (2020) Communal therapeutic mobility in group walking: a meta-ethnography. Social Science & Medicine 262: 113241.

Morris S, Guell C, Pollard TM (2019) Group walking as a ‘lifeline’: understanding the place of outdoor walking groups in women’s lives. Social Science & Medicine 238:112489.

Gender and Walking 

The aim of this systematic review was to examine gender differences in walking for leisure, transport and in total in adults living in high-income countries, and to assess whether gender differences in walking practices change across the life-course. We concluded that while there is little evidence that levels of total walking consistently vary by gender, there are consistent gender differences in participation in walking for some purposes, including for leisure, and that there are gender differences in the impact of age on walking.

Pollard T & Wagnild J (2017) Gender differences in walking (for leisure, transport and in total) across adult life: a systematic review. BMC Public Health 17: 341.

PhD Students

Laura McGuire

Laura graduated from University College London in 2019, with a First Class degree in Anthropology.  She is currently studying for a PhD, funded by an ESRC studentship from the North Ireland and North East Doctoral Training Partnership. In this research project, she is investigating community gardening and green social prescribing, as informed by her research interest in health inequalities, healthism, constructions of nature, and conceptions of wellbeing. She aims to look at the moralities and motivations that undergird both health practices and gardening practices, and to ethnographically explore their compatibility in the context of green health interventions. This project builds upon the research conducted as part of her MA Research Methods degree with organisers of community gardens. Laura is supervised by Tessa Pollard, Cassandra Phoenix and Steph Morris (Newcastle University). Laura also works on our COAST project (see above).

McGuire L, Morris S, Pollard T (2022) Community gardening and wellbeing: the understandings of organisers and their implications for gardening for health. Health & Place 75: 102773.

Dr Catherine Marley
BSc MA PhD 2023 

Catherine conducted research on sex differences in time spent in rough and tumble play, exploring evolutionary hypotheses about the adaptive significance of play, an important component of physical activity in juvenile animals and humans. Catherine was supervised by Tessa Pollard, Sally Street and Rob Barton.

Marley CL, Pollard TM, Barton RA, Street S (2022) A systematic review of sex differences in rough and tumble play across non-human mammals. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 76: 158.

Dr Emily Tupper
BA MA PhD 2022

Emily studied for a PhD funded by an ESRC studentship from the Northern Ireland and North East Doctoral Training Partnership. Emily's research is concerned with those "doing good" by combining volunteering with physical activity and she is using ethnographic methods, including participant observation. She is interested in innovative approaches to health and wellbeing and the ways in which well people "stay well" through physical activity practices. Emily was supervised by Tessa Pollard, Sarah Atkinson and Andrew Russell.  She worked in the Physical Activity Lab on our social prescribing and active school travel projects and now works at the Institute of Medical Humanities, Durham University, also maintaining her affiliation with the Physical Activity Lab.

Tupper E, Atkinson S, Pollard T (2020) Doing more with movement: constituting healthy publics in a movement volunteering programme.  Palgrave Communications 6: 94.

Dr Janelle Wagnild 
BA MSc PhD 2019

Funded by the Durham Doctoral Studentship, Janelle's PhD set out to explore a possible link between sedentary behaviour during pregnancy and pregnancy complications, particularly gestational diabetes, using accelerometry. She also used qualitative methods to understand how pregnant women in the UK view physical activity and how their beliefs about the importance or safety of physical activity while pregnant influence their mobility patterns. 

Wagnild J, Pollard T (2020) ‘Sit yourself down’: women’s experiences of negotiating physical activity during pregnancy. Qualitative Health Research 30: 1072-1082.

Wagnild J, Pollard T (2020) Associations between television time and activPAL-measured duration and pattern of sedentary time among pregnant women at risk of gestational diabetes in the UK. Journal of Physical Activity and Health 17: 471-474.

Wagnild J, Hinshaw K, Pollard T (2019) Associations of sedentary time and self-reported television time during pregnancy with incident gestational diabetes and plasma glucose levels in women at risk of gestational diabetes in the UK. BMC Public Health 19: 575.

Dr Stephanie Morris
BA MA PhD 2017

Steph Morris undertook her PhD in the Physical Activity Lab, graduating in 2017.  Her PhD research project was entitled, ‘Understanding the place and meaning of physical activity in the lives of young people: an ethnographic study with young people at two youth centres in a low-income area of North East England'. Steph subsequently undertook ethnographic work in the Physical Activity Lab on walking groups, active school travel and social prescribing. Steph currently works at the University of Newcastle’s Institute of Population Health Sciences.