Head of Health and Wellbeing Kiara Lewis addresses national Public Health England workshop on her research into activity schemes for overweight youngsters

AS the UK faces up to a growing obesity crisis among youngsters, a University of Huddersfield expert has told a major conference about a successful project which saw a large number of children not only lose weight but also gain in self-esteem and begin to enjoy exercise, which they had previously grown to hate.

Kiara Lewis (pictured right) is Head of the Division of Health and Wellbeing in the University’s School of Human and Health Sciences.  Her area of special expertise is the promotion of physical activity among overweight and sedentary people and she was invited to address a workshop organised in Durham by Public Health England.  The event dealt with issues arising from the National Child Measurement programme, which gathers data used to support public health initiatives.

 

 

One of six invited speakers, Kiara reported on her research, which includes analysis of interviews with overweight children and her evaluation of a scheme called Young PALS, run by Kirklees Council and now known as the Start scheme.

Children aged from five to 16 who belonged to the highest categories of obesity were invited to join the scheme, which included not only physical activity, but also sessions on nutrition and one-to-one motivational interviews.

“The children on the scheme were very successful in reducing the weight, but they also increased their self esteem and they became more active,” said Kiara.  “I have been researching what it was about the scheme that made them feel better about themselves and why they now enjoy exercising.  Beforehand they often disliked PE, but after they had been on the scheme they discovered they liked exercise and activity.

“In my presentation for Public Health England, I tried to explain what we can do to make these youngsters feel better about themselves and what helps them to like being physically active.”

During the period of evaluation by the University of Huddersfield, the Young PALS project involved more than 300 Kirklees children.  Some 60 per cent of them reduced their BMI.

 

That figure is comparable to the success rate of similar schemes, said Kiara Lewis, but what was more unusual was that 72 per cent of the participants recorded a rise in their self-esteem.

“Many of these children hadn’t had a positive experience of being physically active, so it was something they avoided.  But now they were saying that they were enjoying exercise and they wanted to be generally more active.”

Kiara added that key factors to emerge were that younger children enjoyed co-operative play not competitive team games and older children enjoyed independent activities such as gym, fitness and working towards personal goals rather than activities involving peer comparisons.

Another important element was the attitude of the staff.

“Rather than telling them off or shouting, they made the children comfortable, so the kids felt they had respect and understanding from the instructors.  They felt better about themselves because of the way they were treated.  This meant the experience was enjoyable, whereas at school sometimes they felt humiliated and useless in PE.”

Kiara Lewis is continuing her research in the field and has recently been conducting interviews with PE teachers and their pupils.

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