Dr. Robert L. Newton Jr., Associate Professor and Director of the Physical Activity and Ethnic Minority Health Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical, has been named Chairperson of the Lifestyle Change and Behavioral Health Study Section at the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Scientific Review, announced last month in Pennington News.
Dr. Newton is a psychological scientist whose research focuses on addressing health disparities in African American children, adults, and older adults. Much of his research is conducted in collaboration with community entities that serve the African American community, including churches, community centers, neighborhoods, and the YMCA.
For almost two decades, Dr. Newton has conducted health promotion research targeting various chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and dementia. Currently he is the co-principal investigator of two NIH grants examining whether regular exercise can reduce risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease in older African Americans.
The Lifestyle Change and Behavioral Health Study Section reviews grant applications focused on promoting health behaviors or lifestyle changes that reduce health risks or help people recover from diseases, conditions or treatments, said the report.
How does he feel about the new position? “I have different feelings about the position,” he said. “I am very honored that they would select me. It suggests that NIH has faith in my ability to serve in a leadership role. On the other hand, I feel a bit nervous. This is a position with great responsibility and I want to make sure that I do the absolute best I can. My job as chairperson is to make sure that each study gets the appropriate amount of discussion. Researchers from around the country are counting on me to help make sure their grant receives a fair review.”
A large part of his job is ensuring that studies are run successfully, he explained. “Currently,” he said, “the COVID pandemic has adversely impacted our ability to recruit participants into our studies. Most of my studies recruit African American adults, and it is important to be able to meet this population in-person in order to establish a level of rapport and trust. However, the fact that many churches, community centers, and other community entities are not engaging in in-person activities and there is low attendance at remote events, makes it difficult to reach my target population,”he said.
“There are other aspects of my job that have been less affected, such as writing grants and manuscripts, although this did take a bit of a dip during the COVID pandemic. The ray of light has been the increased funding opportunities specifically around the COVID pandemic. I am a part of four newly awarded projects that are seeking to conduct research on various aspects of COVID 19,” he said.
What are some of the most important contributions from his research for the average person? I think that one of the things that the average person can take away from my research findings is that community resources help increase exercise. We have shown this in YMCAs, churches, and neighborhoods,” he explained.
“We have also shown that these community based programs lead to health benefits. Our weight loss program leads to modest weight loss, and our physical activity programs have lead to decreased abdominal body fat and increased fitness. These are important changes, because if maintained, they should lead to decreased risk of developing chronic disease.