BrainPark – Combining neuroscience and exercise physiology


As the exercise and sports science industry has grown over the last 30 years, so too has the niche areas in which exercise professionals are playing a key role.

One of these areas is in neuroscience and two Accredited Exercise Physiologists, Sam Hughes and Edouard Kayayan, provide us with an insight to the work they are undertaking with BrainPark in Melbourne, Victoria and combining neuroscience and exercise physiology. 

What is BrainPark?
BrainPark is a world first neuroscience research clinic dedicated to creating better outcomes for people living with compulsive behaviours; all the way from unhealthy habits through to addictions and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The BrainPark team are working to harness the powerful impact that our everyday lifestyle activities (e.g., physical activity, sleep, diet, social connection, meditation) and technology have on the brain to develop new intervention and assessment tools. Through this work their ultimate vision is to use neuroscience to help create healthy habits, brains and lifestyles.

BrainPark are motivated by the knowledge that Australians have some of the highest rates of addictions and compulsions (e.g., problematic eating, drinking, gambling, drug, internet use, etc) in the world. These lifestyle patterns contribute to poor physical, mental and brain health, as well as an enormous number of hours in lost productivity. To help turn the tide, BrainPark has three key ambitions:
  1. Change the way that compulsions are treated by developing empowering evidence-based lifestyle and technology-based interventions,
  2. Change the way compulsions are assessed by developing engaging evidence-based digital assessment tools, and
  3. Change the way compulsions are understood by fast tracking the latest science to the community.

BrainPark has a wide range of active research projects, with each study investigating a different aspect of how lifestyle and technology can be used to enhance brain health, mental health, cognitive health, and performance. The research is conducted at their purpose-built facility within Monash University, Melbourne. With its indoor and outdoor gyms, spin room, exercise physiology lab, meditation and yoga studio, virtual reality suite, meditation garden, and giant fibre optic brain sculpture, BrainPark looks and feels far more like a playground for the body and brain than a traditional research lab or clinic.

BrainPark is staffed by a multi-disciplinary team of world experts, including neuroscientists, mental health experts, behavioural interventionists, biomedical engineers, technology developers, and data analysts working together to achieve their vision.

In 2018, BrainPark employed their first full-time Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP).
The role of Accredited Exercise Physiologists at BrainPark
BrainPark now has two full-time AEPs, Sam and Edouard. Having exercise specialists with access to bespoke exercise facilities imbedded within a neuroscience and mental health research clinic is unique on a global scale. This allows BrainPark to investigate exercise in very precise and sophisticated ways, and to create the kind of high-quality exercise interventions that are needed by our communities.

Sam and Edouard integrate gold-standard exercise science principles into BrainPark’s research and community programs and develop partnerships with external organisations to accelerate the translation of BrainPark’s research into the community.

Examples of their day-to-day responsibilities include:
  • Exercise program design and facilitation
  • Fitness testing
  • Data-handling and analysis
  • Developing and applying behaviour change strategies
  • Maximising intervention engagement and adherence rates
  • Consulting PhD and Honours students
  • Developing community and clinical links

Featured: Sam Hughes

Featured: Edouard Kayayan

How exactly is exercise physiology being utilised?
Currently there are three key interventions being delivered by BrainPark which rely on the skills and knowledge of AEPs:

  1. Conquering Compulsions: A compulsion is something we do again and again, and have difficulty stopping even though it’s not helping us. They are often things we do in response to unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety or anger, like having a glass of wine after a stressful day at work. Most people engage in compulsive behaviours at some point but when these behaviours become very strong or occur frequently they can develop into more significant substance additions or obsessive compulsive disorder. Accessible and empowering strategies that reduce compulsivity could significantly improve well-being and prevent onset of clinical compulsive conditions. Two promising candidates are physical exercise and meditation.

    Conquering compulsions is investigating the impacts of physical exercise, with and without meditation on compulsive behaviour. Using advanced neuroimaging methods, BrainPark are investigating the impact of these strategies on the severity of compulsivity and the brain and cognitive processes that drive them.

  2. The Brain, Exercise and Addiction Trial: Research has shown that smoking cannabis very regularly for many years can have a negative impact on brain health. Seated deep within the brain, the hippocampus is particularly vulnerable and as this is a key region for memory, new learning, and emotional processing, these skills can also be impacted by many years of regular cannabis use. The good news is that neuroscience research also shows that these negative impacts may be reversible, but this takes many years of abstinence.

    Designed and delivered by BrainParks AEPs, BEAT is investigating whether neuroscience-informed exercise programs can speed up the process of brain recovery, and whether restoration of brain health is accompanied by improvements in memory, mood, sleep, and general well-being.

  3. BrainGains: The mental health benefits of regular physical exercise are well established, with robust evidence demonstrating improvements in mood, emotional control, self-efficacy, and quality of life, alongside reductions in stress, anxiety, depression, and addiction. However, exercise-based programs designed specifically to assist people with poor mental health are scarce. To help overcome this, BrainPark partnered with the Turner Adult Psychology Clinic to create BrainGains.

    BrainGains is a neuroscience-informed physical exercise and health behaviour change program. Clients receive access to an evidence based exercise program, designed and delivered by BrainPark’s AEPs, and behaviour change support from Turner Clinic psychologists. This gives clients the knowledge, skills, confidence, and support to use regular physical exercise to self-manage their mental health. It also upskills psychologists in health behaviour change and the value of exercise to treat mental illness.
Sam & Edouard share their favourite parts about working for BrainPark
“Firstly, my favourite part about working for BrainPark is watching the impact our programs have on our participants. It’s a constant reinforcement of the power exercise can have on the lives of people wanting to improve their mental wellness or manage their substance use.

Secondly, I have always had a long-term fascination with the interacting Mind-Body benefits of exercise. I could see this interaction at play when I worked in private practice for many years, so to work at an organisation that specifically studies that interaction in exceptional detail – is amazing for me. And finally, working alongside such a high-performing multi-disciplinary team has had profound positive impact on my knowledge and skills – my colleagues make me a better AEP”.

“The first thing that comes to my mind, when thinking about working at BrainPark is ‘inspirational’. Environmentally, I’m immersed in a state of the art and beautifully designed workspace and socially I’m surrounded with extremely committed and hardworking ‘Brainiacs’ who are not only among the best in the world at what they do, they share a passion when it comes to exercise and lifestyle factors that impact brain health and mental wellness.

Exercise Physiologists working alongside neuropsychologists and brain scientists is not a common occurrence. Although the behaviour change elements AEPs practice on a daily basis is in many instances underpinned by the work of Neuropsychologists, every day is an incredible learning experience and allows me to further master my craft and put my experience and skill set into meaningful practice that will lead to long term and large-scale change”.

Their colleagues also shared their thoughts on the benefits of AEPs within BrainPark
Director & Clinical Neuropsychologist:
“I dreamt of using physical exercise/health as a basis for mental health. Physical exercise is engaging, interactive, empowering, and good for mind and body. Thanks to BrainPark and our amazing AEPs who embody these principles – we are now doing it! Our AEPs are highly skilled at delivering safe and effective exercise programs that are scientifically rigorous and grounded in good theory. Thanks to our AEPs we know we are delivering highly effective interventions to the community, helping to improve self-care and general well-being. We know we are doing a good because our participants consistently turn up for their exercise sessions, almost all of them complete the entire 2-3 month intensive activities – they just keep coming back for more!”

Research Fellow & Psychologist:
“Having AEPs at BrainPark allows us to prescribe and deliver exercise interventions with greater precision and safety than would otherwise be possible. Their expertise in exercise prescription has been integral in developing and implementing interventions that target specific areas of brain, cognitive and mental health. Their experience in health behaviour change has also been invaluable and significantly contributes to the high levels of engagement we see in our exercise interventions at BrainPark”.

Research Officer:

“Our AEPs at BrainPark have allowed us to deliver highly engaging and personally tailored exercise interventions. They've brought with them a wealth of knowledge around behaviour change which has led to not only high levels of engagement within our interventions but also sustained changes after interventions. It has been invaluable for us to have them as part of our multidisciplinary team”

To find out more about BrainPark, visit their website. BrainPark is a joint initiative between the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health and Monash Biomedical Imaging (MBI), made possible by the philanthropic support of the David Winston Turner Endowment Fund and the Wilson Foundation.

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