Wales is leading the way in combating childhood obesity now and for future generations as research finds better ways of enabling children and young people to lead healthy lives, contributing to a healthier, more active Wales.
Health and Care Research Wales / News
5 July 2018
This year, the number of children dangerously obese by the time they leave primary school will be ten times higher than in the 1990s, and that’s a trend that looks set to continue.
Now Wales is pioneering steps to tackle this well into the next 70 years through research harnessing health and activity data from primary and secondary schools, and trials aiming to boost activity by giving young people greater choice.
Changing the research landscape
Wales’ National Centre for Population Health and Wellbeing Research (NCPHWR) is at the forefront of research to inform obesity prevention initiatives. Funded by Health and Care Research Wales, the Centre has forged its own path in finding the evidence to develop new approaches.
Professor Sinead Brophy, deputy director of NCPHWR, explains: “Taking interventions that work for adults and directly applying them to young people as a quick fix has been done in the past and there is little evidence that this works.”
“We’re taking a very different approach by developing solutions that young people want, and are sustainable by understanding the issues from the perspective of young people.”
Creating a national health network
With a strong focus on literacy and numeracy, it can be difficult for schools to support the health and wellbeing needs of children.
To combat this Wales has established the Health and Attainment of Pupils in Primary Education Network (HAPPEN), which has collected health and activity data on over 4000 pupils from schools across Swansea. This data is helping those schools to spot and tackle health inequalities amongst their students.
According to one deputy head teacher, HAPPEN is already helping to “increase the opportunities that children receive”, and the HAPPEN team believe that it could form the basis for a national schools health programme into the next 70 years. “As a network we are looking to expand across Wales and to provide Wales with a national Primary School Health Network,” explains Emily Marchant, HAPPEN coordinator.
Asking the right questions
Beyond primary school, obesity in childhood has serious impacts on young people’s growth and development, and later life health. With evidence showing that obese children are staying obese for longer, it’s more important than ever that researchers are asking the right questions to create positive change for future generations.
In response, the NCPHWR have developed the largest network of secondary school age health and activity research in the world, with the aim of creating healthy futures for young people.
By collecting data twice a year from more than 100,000 students in secondary schools across Wales, the School Health Research Network (SHRN) allows schools to better understand the challenges facing them, and allows researchers to identify the questions that need answering.
Professor Simon Murphy, principal investigator at SHRN, said: “We are able to identify the health issues that need addressing, highlight chalk face approaches that are making a difference and work together to develop evidence based approaches that will improve the prospects of future generations.”
Over the next 70 years, SHRN data could be used to conduct more research into the most important and pressing topics in children’s health leading to developments in policy and practice.
Letting teens make their own choices
Although policy makers are looking at the evidence and attempting to implement physical activity schemes for young people, British children and young people remain among the least active in the world.
Leading researchers in Wales think they have found the missing link – the teens themselves, their needs and their wants.
That’s why on top of collecting data to inform schools, the National Centre is trialling new approaches that treat teenagers as individuals and allowing them to make their own decisions about exercise.
The Active Children through Individual Vouchers Evaluation (ACTIVE) project gave activity vouchers to year nine pupils, aged 13 to 14, to spend on any physical activity they like, empowering young people to make their own decisions, changing attitudes and decreasing inactivity.
Teenagers who took part also gave recommendations about what would make them want to take part in physical activity, including lower costs, having local facilities and dedicated activities for teens.
Michaela James, ACTIVE trial manager, said: “We are definitely looking into future funding for ACTIVE. Our hopes are that we can answer some questions we have from our findings to develop an even better intervention to help teenagers become more active.”
By considering the teens own recommendations when implementing schemes and policies of the future we may be able to encourage teenagers to lead more active lives.
Impacting Wales as a whole
Young people are our future and so their health is of vital importance to us all, research conducted by the Centre is protecting children’s health now and for the future generations of Wales.
Ronan Lyons, director of NCPHWR, said: “The work being carried out can have a positive impact, not just on young people and their future achievements, health and wellbeing, but potentially on the future productivity and health of Wales as a whole.”