Feature: Dr Pedro Hallal - how I got into physical activity research
6 December 2012. By Meredith Thomas
I grew up in Brazil, in the extreme south of the country. My dream was to be a football player, which is more or less what all Brazilian boys want to be. I was aged 15 when I realised that that would not work, and I think that was no great loss for football. I had two things that interested me: sport and journalism. I had to take a decision at that time and decided to move towards physical activity within sport.
When I was still a student at the physical education school, I had a gym for two-and-a-half years, working as the owner and an instructor. That happens a lot in Brazil. It was good experience for me because I was able to learn how to deal with people trying to exercise. In order to own a gym, you have to understand business and think with a business mind - not skills I possess. When I had the gym it was a weird experience, and I decided to quit and go into science.
After I got my diploma, I took the admission test for my Master's degree. My graduation was in December and in March I had already started my Master's classes. It took me one-and-a-half years, and then I started my PhD straight away. When I was done I got my tenured position at the university. So I had no time to rest.
I was still a PhD student when the Ministry of Health started inviting me to meetings. The field of physical activity was not well developed in Brazil at that time. So when they saw someone with a physically active background was actually in one of the top public health programmes in the country, they said, "Let's ask this person to come along here and talk to us." Their proposal was to spend lots of money on media, advising people to be physically active. I said that, while this is extremely important, physical inactivity will not be solved only with advertisements. We need to work with city environments if we want to succeed at improving public health through physical activity promotion.
My group in Brazil was funded by the Wellcome Trust, through a programme grant. When I first saw the announcement that they would change the system to fund Investigator Awards, I thought this is exactly where I fit. I fit here because I have a very clear field of research and broad research questions - not very specific ones. So when I saw that, I thought, "Why not?" I was awarded an Investigator Award last year.
The Brazilian Academy of Science created a category of fellow for people under 40 years of age, and most of the people who become those fellows are around 35 to 40. All of a sudden one day my supervisor told me that my name was about to be accepted for membership. I think it was the combination of lots of publications and my engagement with the Ministry of Health, among other factors. I am actually very proud. At 28, I was extremely young to get that.
People often ask how physically active I am. When I am in Brazil I play tennis twice a week. I should be playing more, but I'm travelling a lot now. Sometimes I go walking and, of course, I play football - as any Brazilian would.
This feature also appears in issue 72 of ‘Wellcome News’.
Image: Illustration of Dr Pedro Hallal. Credit: Bret Syfert.