McKay, Heather

McKay, Heather Heather Mckay-.jpg
Professor, Department of Orthopaedics and Family Practice, UBC

Areas of Expertise

  • Physical activity
  • Child and youth health
  • Older adult health
  • Aging actively
  • Bone health
  • Built environment and health
  • Community engagement
  • Knowledge translation, exchange and mobilization
  • Implementation and scale-up

A little over a decade ago Heather McKay’s team was conducting a child health research study in Metro Vancouver elementary schools. They were presented with an alarming reality. In a sample of 10-year olds, 58% of children had at least one elevated risk factor for cardiovascular disease; 9% had four or more.

Putting research evidence into action for child and youth health

McKay’s response was immediate. “It is time. We can no longer afford to discuss whether action should be taken but must rather begin to take action.” With more than a decade of research under her belt she was well aware of how environments and physical activity impact bone, muscle and fat and the general health of children. Therefore, as part of this call to action, she brought together provincial government ministries, community and research partners to begin crafting a global solution to an escalating problem of child physical inactivity and health.

The result—with input from teachers, parents, principals and government and highly effective school community based partners—is Action Schools! BC,. Action Schools! BC is a comprehensive elementary-school model that focuses on delivering opportunities for schools to engage in physical activity and healthy eating so as to enhance children’s health. Action Schools! BC engaged 500 children and 10 BC schools in 2005, a decade later it has reached 500,000 students in 1,600 schools. And it’s been emulated in the US, South Africa, Norway and Australia.

Addressing the needs of an aging population

Today, as research scientist at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, McKay is bringing the same energy and commitment to solving the health and mobility issues of older adults.

“I’m drawn to where the need is greatest,” McKay says. “By 2016, there will be more people over the age of 85 than those under the age of 15—a first in North American history. And if our health care system is to have any chance whatsoever of surviving in the future, we need to make sure older adults age well—and age actively.”

That’s why McKay and her team at the Centre are looking at factors that help make neighborhoods good places to grow older. Team-based projects such as Walk the Talk, Active Streets, Active People and Shape the Path share a common goal to identify factors, including features of a built environment, that can prolong active and independent living. This, in turn, promotes physical, social, and emotional health—and reduces dependency on a strained health care system.

To make a difference takes “all hands on deck,” says McKay. “While a lot of research starts and finishes in the lab, ours begins and ends in the community. We work with our community partners to first of all make sure we ask the right questions. We deliver results back into the community to drive program, policy or infrastructure changes reinforced by our evidence.”

Building meaningful partnerships to have in impact

Such collaborations don’t just happen, says McKay. “It’s about meaningful relationships with governments, policy makers and with grassroots groups in our communities. It’s about looking and acting across the continuum of a complex system of influences.”

But McKay has a knack for it. In fact, getting people to work together is one of the favorite parts of her job. “It’s about the process for me. I love engaging and connecting disparate groups and bringing them together to solve problems. That’s when the magic happens!”

Collaboration is, after all, what the Centre is all about, McKay points out. “Our original concept for the Centre was based on individuals uniting from different disciplines to study the same problem from different perspectives—I believe that an interdisciplinary approach enhances our likelihood of getting to the right answer.”

And while the $40-million dollars’ worth of leading-edge infrastructure at the Centre is a big draw, it is all about the people. Researchers come to the Centre, says McKay, first and foremost for the collaborative experience. “The passionate committed, supported community we have here is extraordinary: across the spectrum of highly qualified personnel, trainees and emerging and established researchers. It is exciting to come to work—can think of no other place like it. ”

In brief

Dr. Heather McKay’s research evaluates the positive role of physical activity on child, youth and older adult health (with a focus on bone health) across settings—schools, community and the built environment. She has been the driving force behind the establishment of the Centre for Hip Health & Mobility, an internationally renowned research centre that addresses enhancing mobility and health across the life course. She is well known for convening highly effective teams to “move research into action” (knowledge mobilization) and for performing research that has immediate impact. This is illustrated by her lead role in the development and implementation of a whole school physical activity and healthy eating model (Action Schools! BC) that engages almost half a million children in British Columbia. She also leads an interdisciplinary team that engages local government to assess whether positive changes to the built environment enhance the mobility and health of children and older adults (Active Streets. Active People). Professor McKay’s contributions have been acknowledged through a Knowledge Translation Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a BC Woman of Distinction Award for Health & Active Living.

Connect with Dr. McKay

Join Dr. McKay's Research Team

If you are interested in joining any of Dr. McKay's research teams as a trainee, please email her with your areas of interest and current curriculum vitae.