Professor Karen Birch (FACSM)


BSc (Hons) Movement Science: Liverpool University, 1990. PhD Exercise Physiology: Liverpool John Moores University, 1995. Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Exercise Science, Manchester Metropolitan University, 1993-2002. Senior Lecturer in Exercise Physiology, University of Leeds, 2002-2011. Reader in Exercise Science, University of Leeds, 2011-2017. Professor of Exercise Science, University of Leeds, 2017+  Fellow of the American College of Sport and Exercise Medicine. 

Research interests

Endothelial integrity, female reproductive hormones, exercise and cardiovascular disease.

My research group comprises a team of researchers with an intense focus on investigation of the interplay between endothelial/vascular function, female reproductive hormone fluctuation, exercise/physical activity, aging and cardiovascular disease. This work involves collaboration with the Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular Medicine and Division of Medical Physics at the Leeds General Infirmary, the Academic Dept. Obstetrics and Gyneacology, St James’s University Hospital, the Dept. Infection, Immunity & Cardiovascular Disease, University of Sheffield, the Bradford Institute for Health Research, Bradford Royal Infirmary, the Research Institute of Sport and Exercise Sciences, John Moores University and the Dept. Physiology, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The techniques utilised by the team include cardiopulmonary exercise tests, echocardiography and MRI for assessment of  ventricular structure and function and 4D flow, doppler ultrasonography for assessment of haemodynamics and endothelial function, applanation tonnometry for assessment of arterial stiffness, flow cytometry and cell culture for assessment of endothelial progenitor cell (or angiogenic cell) mobilization and function.

  • The endothelial surface of the lumen of blood vessels is constantly exposed to haemodynamic shear stress and the modulation of endothelial phenotype by these local haemodynamic conditions has been postulated to contribute towards  the progression of atherosclerosis. We are interested in how exercise can alter the patterns, magnitudes and volumes of  shear stress and have manipulated these using exercise of differing types and intensities (Harris et al.,  2014;Rakobowchuk et al., 2013). We are currently assessing the impact of differing shear rates recorded along the aortic arch during exercise of differing intensities in the MRI. The impact of interval exercise upon shear rates and endothelial progenitor cell mobilization and function will be reviewed in an invited symposium to ECSS (2017).

  • The hormone oestrogen has potent effects upon the vasculature that are seen to influence haemodynamics. These effects are often tempered by the ovarian steroid progesterone. We have investigated the influence of oestrogen and progesterone fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle and oral contraceptive cycle upon post-exercise hypotension. Having indicated the lack of effect of exogenous hormones (Birch et al., 2002: Experimental Physiology) we were the first group to highlight that, rather than increase the magnitude of post-exercise hypotension, oestrogen and progesterone appears to buffer the hypotension in the late follicular and mid luteal phases of the menstrual cycle (Esformes et al. 2005: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise and ACSM Annual Congress, 2005). The impact of fluctuating hormones upon health and performance in premenopausal women has been highlighted further in an invited clinical review for the British Medical Journal (Birch, 2005), Chapters in the British Medical Association ABC of Sports Medicine and in Exercise Physiology in Special Populations (Buckley),  and at invited talks to the Northern Cyprus IVF conference (2015), the British Menopause Society (2008, 2010) and to the Northern Fertility Nurses (2014).

  • Loss of the ovarian hormones at the menopausal transition has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes in women. This has been highlighted in a key note, by invitation by the Physiological Society, at both the British Association of Science Annual Congress, Dublin, (2005) and the Association for Science Education (2005). With funding from Heart Research UK we have assessed the impact of a six month exercise training programme upon risk factors for cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women with and without type 2 diabetes. These results have been presented at EuroPrevent (a European Society of Cardiology Congress) in Athens (2006) and Madrid (2007), the annual conference of ECSS (Barcelona (2013) the annual Congress of ACSM  in New Orleans (2007), San Francisco (2012) and Boston (2016) . The most exciting results of these studies were that exercise training can improve endothelial function independently of changes in any other CVD risk factors in these women. We have recently received BHF funding to explore this finding further by assessing the impact of exercise training upon endothelial progenitor cell function and number.

Funding: European Commission FP5, Nuffield Foundation, Heart Research UK, British Heart Foundation, The Dunhill Medical Trust,   NIHR, MRC, EPSRC

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>


  • BSc, Liverpool, PhD 1995, Liverpool John Moores

Professional memberships

  • Fellow of American College of Sports Medicine
  • European College of Sports Science
  • British Menopause Society
  • Physiology Society

Student education

I teach on all aspects of Exercise Physiology across all years of the programmes in Sport and Exercise Sciences and Sport and Exercise Medicine. Specific teaching commitments relate to interdisciplinary sport and exercise science, the female athlete triad, exercise prescription and advanced exercise physiology. I supervise final year and masters dissertations and incorporate these experiences with those of my PhD students.

Studentship information

Undergraduate project topics:

  • Exercise Prescription
  • Physical activity and health
  • Cardiovascular disease and exercise
  • Exercise and the endothelium
  • Exercise and female health

Postgraduate studentship areas:

  • Interval exercise and shear stress responses
  • Cardiac rehabilitation and endothelial response
  • Myocardial perfusion and exercise
  • Physical activity and stroke
  • Endothelial progenitor cells and exercise in heart failure, aging and diabetes
  • Endothelial cell responses to exercise related shear

See also:

Academic roles:

  • Head of School - Head of School of Biomedical Sciences from 1st April 2017

Research groups and institutes

  • Sport and Exercise Sciences
<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>