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PhD opportunity: Stress, Healthy Ageing and Physical Exercise (SHAPE)

Background information

An exciting opportunity for a full-time PhD period of study is available in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, University of Stirling.

The SHAPE project will examine the associations between physical activity and psychological, social and physical wellbeing in older adults, and develop a protocol for an intervention to influence healthy ageing across psychosocial, neuroendocrine and physiological health outcomes. 

The primary supervisor (50%) Whittaker is a Professor of Behavioural Medicine working on interdisciplinary ageing research.  She has considerable experience of psychosocial and neuroendocrine measurement, and multi-disciplinary research into physical activity, wellbeing, and neuroendocrine-immune outcomes in ageing.  She has broad experience of physical function assessments and physical activity interventions with older adults, and data analysis of psychological and physical health associations.  Whittaker has led an EC Marie Curie ITN training PhD students in interdisciplinary research into physical activity in ageing and is Director of Research Development.

Ryde (25%) and Connelly (25%) are Lecturers in Physical Activity and Health. Ryde has a background in Sports Science and Biology with in depth experience of physical activity monitoring, intervention development, and health promotion.  Connelly has a background in Sports Science and Psychology, with in depth experience of physical activity promotion and co-created intervention development for a range of health conditions. 

This interdisciplinary expertise means the student will receive training in psychosocial assessments, physical activity monitoring, neuroendocrine sampling and assays, physiological function tests, intervention development, analysis of multi-disciplinary data, and public participant involvement with older adults, among many other techniques, resulting in creating a PhD graduate with a broad range of interdisciplinary skills applicable for many settings. They will use Stirling’s COMPASS tool to identify training needs annually. 

Hosted within the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, the student will be provided with facilities, including their own desk in an office, and full access to all software and equipment as required. The student will participate in the faculty’s internal research group ‘Stirling Physical Activity Research, Knowledge & Learning Exchange - SPARKLE’. The research group has regular meetings, provides a forum for PhD students to discuss their research and gain support and advice from the broader teams. In addition, the student will have access to subject specific training on a one-to-one basis with the supervisors and with other academics within the Faculty, and through their participation in internal and external subject-specific training events, including those designed by the PhD students in the Faculty.

Project description

The SHAPE project will examine the associations between physical activity and psychological, social and physical wellbeing in older adults, and develop a protocol for an intervention to influence healthy ageing across psychosocial, neuroendocrine and physiological health outcomes.  Currently the time spent in good health in later life is not keeping pace with life expectancy changes (1).  Ageing is associated with declining physical function, and changes in the levels and rhythms of key stress hormones such as cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone-sulphate (DHEAS).  We have shown that older individuals with poorer physical function and independence have an increased cortisol:DHEAS ratio in saliva (2).  The cortisol:DHEAS ratio is a particularly important indicator of immune system health and correlate of physical and mental wellbeing, particularly among older adults.  We have shown it relates to low social support, depression, anxiety (2) and chronic stress (4).  Importantly, our preliminary research suggested that physical activity could buffer the effects of stress on the cortisol:DHEAS ratio among older adults (4).  Given demographic change towards a greater proportion of older adults in the population than ever, there is an urgent need to understand the capacity for lifestyle interventions to positively influence mental and physical wellbeing, and promote healthy ageing. 

This interdisciplinary project will examine the influence of physical activity on psychosocial and physiological health markers among community-dwelling older adults, the inter-relationships between these variables, and use the knowledge gained to co-create a physical activity intervention protocol to influence these health markers among older adults. 

The PhD project will:

     1) assess the current state of knowledge on the efficacy of physical activity interventions for improving psychosocial health and influencing cortisol:DHEAS in older adults through a systematic review; 

     2) develop our understanding of the associations between physical activity and physical, psychosocial, and neuroendocrine health through data collection among older adults of a range of physical activity levels; and

     3) develop a protocol for a physical activity intervention aiming to improve mental and physical wellbeing and decrease the cortisol:DHEAS ratio among older adults.

The cross-sectional study will specifically focus on objective and subjective physical activity, physical function, psychosocial wellbeing (stress, social support, depression and anxiety), and cortisol and DHEAS levels, rhythms and ratio in saliva.  Participants will be recruited through our extensive contacts with older adults in local community groups such as Age Scotland, the Royal Voluntary Service etc. 

The intervention protocol will be co-created with older people themselves through local community groups, Parkrun University of Stirling, and volunteers from cross-sectional study, to maximise feasibility and acceptability.  Protocol development will utilise the 6SQUiD approach for quality intervention development, which includes cocreation and theory of change (5).  This will lead towards a future pilot and full-scale trial of the intervention among older adults.              

  1. Whittaker AC, Delledonne M, Finni T, Garagnani P, Greig C, Kallen V, Kokko K, Lord J, Maier AB, Meskers CGM, Santos NC, Sipila S, Thompson JL, van Riel N. Physical Activity and Nutrition INfluences In ageing (PANINI): consortium mission statement. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2019 Sep 2];30:685–92. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s40520-017-0823-7

  2. Heaney JLJ, Phillips AC, Carroll D. Ageing, physical function, and the diurnal rhythms of cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone. Psychoneuroendocrinology [Internet]. 2011/08/02. 2012;37:341–49. Available from: http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?eid=2-s2.0-84856563491&partnerID=40&md5=2d2985a174b4a23780101262f0cb0218

  3. Heaney JLJ, Phillips AC, Carroll D. Ageing, depression, anxiety, social support and the diurnal rhythm and awakening response of salivary cortisol. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2010;78.

  4. Heaney JLJ, Carroll D, Phillips AC. Physical activity, life events stress, cortisol, and DHEA: Preliminary findings that physical activity may buffer against the negative effects of stress. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. 2014;22.

  5. Wight D, Wimbush E, Jepson R, Doi L. Six steps in quality intervention development (6SQuID). Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2015;70:520–25.


The SHAPE project is interdisciplinary in that the measurements and approaches used rely on specific disciplinary expertise in Exercise Psychology, Health Psychology, Sports Science, Biology/Physiology and Psychoneuroendocrinology.  These disciplines fit across the remit of the ESRC, BBSRC, and MRC, making the project truly interdisciplinary.  Few individuals have knowledge, training, and experience in all these aspects, and access to appropriate facilities.  However, the present supervisory team (described above) comprises individuals who all work within Psychology and/or Physiology using interdisciplinary methods in physical activity/sport settings.  This will equip the student to address the research questions which span the boundaries between the psychology of wellbeing, physical activity measurement, and neuroendocrine outcomes.

Applicants are likely to be from a Psychology, Sports Sciences, Biomedical Sciences or Human Biology background, with experience of either psychological, physiological or lab-based methodologies and measures.  They will be supported in the development of new psychosocial, biological or physiological skills as appropriate including one-to-one training in neuroendocrine assays (Whittaker), accelerometry (Ryde), physical function tests (Connolly), and psychosocial assessment (Whittaker).  Intervention development training will be provided by the whole team.  Public Participant Involvement will be encouraged throughout the project and is vital to the intervention development stage.  Public engagement training will be administered by lead supervisor who has a strong public engagement profile.  Cocreation experience will be developed and utilised with the team’s non-academic partners – the Royal Voluntary Service, Paths for All, Active Stirling, the Daily Mile etc. that the supervisory team already has strong links with.             

Candidates are welcome to make informal enquiries about the project to Prof Anna C. Whittaker (a.c.whittaker@stir.ac.uk)

The project is self-funded, however the opportunity may occasionally arise for paid tasks relating to teaching and research within the Faculty. Further information relating to fees and funding can be found on our postgraduate tuition fees page.

Entry Requirements

The successful candidate should have:

  • a 1st or 2:1 degree in Psychology or a Health/Natural Sciences subject with a statistical component and experience of working with human participants
  • a Master degree in a relevant topic area (e.g. sports science, sport and exercise psychology, health psychology, public health,)
  • an interest in working with older adults
  • an interest and willingness to work on an interdisciplinary project
  • an interest in the research areas and methodologies involved in the project
  • good command of one package for statistical computing (w.g., SPSS, R, Stata, …)

How to apply

Applicants are asked to send in all the documentation listed below, attached as a single email, to fhss.pg.cpd.team@stir.ac.uk using the subject header ‘Stress, Healthy Ageing and Physical Exercise (SHAPE)’.

Documents to attach include:

  • Academic Transcript(s) and Degree Certificate(s): Final degree transcripts including grades and degree certificates (and official translations, if needed) - scanned copy in colour of the original documents.
  • References: Two references on headed paper (academic and/or professional). At least one reference must be academic. The other can be academic or professional. Your references should be on official headed paper. These should also be signed by the referee. If your referees would prefer to provide confidential references direct to the University then we can also accept the reference by email, from the referee’s official university or business email account to pg.cpd.team@stir.ac.uk clearly labelling the reference e.g. ‘SHAPE reference’
  • Copy of CV: detailing relevant education and work experience.
  • Applicant Statement: a brief 1-page letter of motivation, outlining your research interests and your thoughts on how you could contribute to our research agenda.

Applications will be assessed by the project team and shortlisted applicants may be invited to an interview late July/early August. The successful candidate will be based in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, University of Stirling. It is anticipated the candidate would start in September 2020 (flexible).

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