Pupils at Countess Wear School, Exeter

Children act on healthy living programme

Schools across Devon are becoming interactive theatres during a series of Healthy Lifestyle Weeks designed to formulate a programme which could ultimately be rolled out across all schools.

The Healthy Lifestyles Programme (HeLP), is being run by specialists from the University of Exeter Medical School and Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, supported by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care in the South West Peninsula (NIHR PenCLAHRC).

Since January, year 5 pupils (9-10 year olds) in eight schools have been receiving the Healthy Lifestyles Programme, which involves a number of activities to promote healthy eating and physical activity. These include special assemblies, activity workshops run by professional sportsmen and dancers, parents’ evenings and education sessions. This term the children will take part in an intensive week of interactive drama activities, designed to engage and inspire them to take the messages home to their parents.

Each year 5 class will work with actors from a local theatre company who will play the roles of Disorganised Duncan, Football Freddie, Snacky Sam and Active Amy - four characters, each with their own lifestyle foibles. Throughout the week, the children will work with the characters to advise them on how to improve their health through changing their behaviour, including what snacks and drinks they choose and how much time they spend devoted to screen-based activities. The pupils will also take on the characters’ roles themselves, to play out what these changes may mean in different scenarios.

Jenny Lloyd from the University of Exeter Medical School, who has led the development of HeLP, said: “This is a fun and engaging way to encourage young people to think about their habits and behaviour and motivate them to take key messages home to their families. HeLP aims to educate children and encourage them to consider any changes they would like to make to their snacking habits and activity levels, which could make a huge difference in the long term. The programme has been carefully designed to enable and support children to make small, sustainable changes to their lifestyles and the involvement of families is central to achieving this. Family members are encouraged to attend key events and we are really hoping that they take up the offer and come in to the school to see all the exciting work the children are doing.”

So far, 32 schools have signed up to HeLP. Half receive the Programme, while the other half follow the usual curriculum, but are assessed and act as controls to help scientists understand whether the intervention effectively improves children’s lifestyles. Lead Investigator Professor Katrina Wyatt said: “This split is designed to allow us to compare the two groups and assess whether the intervention programme is effective in supporting children to make healthy behaviour choices and preventing them from gaining excess weight. A pilot involving four schools indicated that our programme can have a positive impact on children’s snacking habits and activity levels. If we can show that HeLP can affect children’s behaviours, we hope it will eventually be used in all schools.”

This year, 16 schools are involved in the trial (8 programme schools and 8 control schools), and another 16 schools will be involved from September. We will know the results of the trial in 2016. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) (Public Health Research Programme) has funded this £1.35 million pound trial.

Val Lineham, Headteacher at Countess Wear School in Exeter, said: “The Healthy Lifestyles Week will be a great way to provoke debate and really get families thinking about what healthy living means. It will mean the ideas come from the children themselves, and we hope that will mean they are more willing to take them home to their parents and put them into practice involving the whole family.”

Child obesity has become a major issue over the past 30 years. Data from the latest 2011 Health Survey for England reported that a third of 11-15 were either overweight or obese. Being overweight in childhood is associated with serious long-term health problems, including increased risk of Type II diabetes and musculo-skeletal and psychological problems. If current trends continue, the Government has been warned that two thirds of all children under 16 years will be overweight or obese by 2050, and the annual cost to the UK and the NHS would be £50 billion.

Sue Clarke, Devon County Council's Head of Education and Learning, said: "Devon schools have always led the way with innovative ideas to improve life for our children. Naturally we want every child in every Devon school to achieve the best they can academically. But a good education is about more than exam results. This programme could help our children lead healthier, more rewarding and fulfilling lives and I am delighted that so many Devon schools are taking part, particularly as our county provides so many opportunities to enjoy a healthy lifestyle."

 Councillor Nicky Williams, Cabinet Member for Children and Young People at Plymouth City Council, said: "It's great to see Plymouth schools involved with this project. Education today is so much more than simply learning the three 'R's, it's about preparing for adult life. That's why it's so important that children understand the healthier the choices they make, the better their lives are likely to be - not just their physical health, but mental health and social success. Learning these lessons at an early age can hopefully result in tackling bad habits before they begin and setting young people on the right course for success."

Food platter banner image via Shutterstock.

Date: 15 May 2013

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