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3 Ways Ulster’s health psychology research is breaking new ground

Friday, March 10th, 2023

Illustration of researchers puzzling together the pieces of someone's mind to represent Ulster's health psychology research

At postgraduate level in health psychology, the real fun is just beginning. As Master’s students, you will have the opportunity to dive into the latest exciting health psychology research, with the chance to impact forthcoming discoveries.

By using the tools learnt during your undergraduate and/or workplace studies, you’ll begin to shape contemporary research into the application of psychology on health and wellbeing.

As well as paving your own path, you will also learn a great deal from current lecturers and research academics supporting the Masters in Health Psychology course at Ulster, many of whom have specialisms of their own.

In this blog, we look at the ground-breaking health psychology research our teaching team has recently been involved in, recognised by internationally renowned science publications.

On movement and menopause

Our researchers were as active as ever during the global pandemic, analysing how physical activity could impact wellbeing for people stuck at home. Kerry Lum, a graduate of a previous Health Psychology MSc programme at Ulster and Dr Liz Simpson, Course Director of the current MSc in Health Psychology, turned their attentions to UK midlife women, gathering survey responses and focus group insights to look at how physical activity can impact overall quality of life for women going through menopause.

This study – published by Maturitas in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – investigated stress levels, coping and menopausal symptoms in women aged 44 to 55 and found that participants who met the UK Physical Activity Guidelines experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less perceived stress than the women who did not.

Research evidence suggested that women who did more physical activity had better physical and mental health and a higher quality of life.

Through this study, researchers saw the need for health interventions to promote healthy aging around menopause, specifically at the onset of menopausal changes. Clinicians focused on increasing physical activity in their patients – by helping them make plans, set goals and gain support from friends and family – may better control menopausal symptoms and boost wellbeing in age.

Middle age woman with an active lifestyle - a participant of Ulster's Health Psychology research

On child behaviour and tooth-brushing intentions

A playful yet important piece of research from Dr Jenny Davison (Lecturer), Dr Marian McLaughlin (Senior Lecturer) and Professor Melanie Giles, published in the European Health Psychology Society’s Health Psychology Bulletin analysed the intentions and motivations of school-age children in brushing their teeth, in order to address the issue of poor oral health in Northern Ireland.

According to the NI Department of Health, its children suffer the highest rate of dental caries in Europe with over half of 8-to-12-year-olds having obvious decay in their permanent teeth. To find out if psychology could play a role, the research team gathered data from 27 schools across Northern Ireland through questionnaires regarding tooth-brushing behaviour.

The study also had other intentions, aiming to employ and judge the effectiveness of the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB). Psychological research evidence shows that strategies aimed at changing attitudes are more successful if they are guided by a validated theory – in this case, the TPB.

The TPB puts forth that individuals consider the implications of their actions before they decide to engage in that behaviour (or not). In addition, intentions are said to be determined by self-efficacy, attitude, subjective norm and perceived control.

The tooth-brushing study found that the TBS can be seen as a useful framework for investigating intentions, providing a foundation for interventions aimed at encouraging toothbrushing behaviour among children and improving quality of life through behavioural interventions.

On mental wellbeing and eating habits

For this research report on eating habits, Lecturer Dr Jenny Davison set her sights on understanding the psychological determinants behind poor food choice in adolescents. By looking at associations between food choice, mental wellbeing, quality of life and family affluence, the aim was to aid interventions promoting healthy eating in teenagers.

The pool of 1,200 case studies comprised children in post-primary schools across the UK, who were surveyed at two age points; aged 13-14 and 15-16. The students were asked questions based on the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, HRQoL, Family Affluence Scale and Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ).

Using multivariate regression analysis, the team determined that frequent consumption of junk food was associated with both being male and having lower mental wellbeing. Those who frequently ate meat were more likely male and more likely to have lower Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQoL).

Across both time points, respondents who claimed to frequently consume fruit and vegetables were more likely to be female, benefiting from HRQoL, higher mental wellbeing and greater family affluence. Consumption of bread and dairy was more common among males and also associated with higher wellbeing and greater affluence.

From these data findings, it is suggested that intervention should target males and those in less affluent households with the aim of reducing junk food consumption and increasing fruit and vegetable intake.

Why Ulster University is a leading choice for Health Psychology Research

Ulster University was named among the top 10% of UK universities for research impact, with 100% of psychology case studies judged as outstanding or very considerable in terms of reach and significance (REF, 2021).

The Ulster University online Health Psychology MSc is taught 100% online, offering part-time flexibility to allow students to balance other commitments. Read our FAQs for information on how to apply.

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