Background:

Poor diet and lack of exercise cost the NHS £7 billion a year and cause many to die early. We aim to build and test an intervention to help teenagers eat better and exercise more. Habits formed as teenagers tend to last, and physical and psychological changes during adolescence make it an important time to help them form healthier habits. Making small sustained changes, e.g. eating more fruit and vegetables and being more active, can reduce risks of heart disease or diabetes in later life. Existing interventions for helping teenagers eat better or exercise more, only work for those ready to change, or who see diet and exercise as important.

We know:

  • school-based interventions may be effective;
  • face-to-face support is helpful;
  • the role of friends/family is important;
  • websites and smartphones are widely used;
  • teenagers spend time playing games on phones and computers.

Intervention:

Using existing knowledge, we will develop an intervention that motivates and supports teenagers to eat better and exercise more, and test this with teenagers from state secondary schools. There are three aspects: 1) participation in LifeLab: a three-week science module linked to the National Curriculum, which helps 13-14 year olds think about science and their health; 2) encouragement from teachers trained to support students to improve their diets and exercise, and 3) a specially-designed, interactive smartphone app that involves friends and has game features.

Three research streams (RS) will:

RS1: Find the best methods for helping teenagers make healthier choices by looking at previous research and talking to experts. Build a computer model to estimate the costs and benefits of existing interventions.

RS2: Develop an intervention that teenagers, parents and teachers find helpful in improving diet and increasing exercise.

RS3: Test the intervention to see how well it works, whether it offers good value for money and the best way of using it in schools.

Our research team includes experts with experience in intervention development, psychology, behaviour change, education, game design, health economics, public health and trial design.

Partnership:

The research questions have been developed with teenagers and school students, with whom we will work closely when building the intervention and making sense of our findings. Our partnership between teenagers, education and healthcare providers, not-for-profit organisations and academics is key to ensuring our research benefits the community.

Public health implications:

Teenagers’ health needs are often ignored and they can be difficult to engage in behaviour change. Building a cheap, sustainable way of engaging them in making healthier choices will benefit their health and that of their future children.

Dissemination:

We will plan this with groups of teenagers and parents. We will present at school assemblies and public meetings, to NHS and university audiences, and engage the media.

Funding:

National Institute for Health Research Programme Grants for Applied Research (£2.2 million)