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Stress, Healthy Ageing and Physical Exercise (SHAPE)

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, 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:DHEA 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.

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.

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.

The candidate will sit within the Stirling Physical Activity Research, Knowledge & Learning Exchange (SPARKLE) group supported by a lively postgraduate group and access to laboratories and technician support, research seminars, and research development programme.

Funding Notes

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 here: View Website


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:

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:

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.

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