An innovative project using community-based action to tackle childhood obesity has shown that primary school aged children will adopt healthier lifestyles when the right social and environmental influences are in place.
In one of the few international studies to test community capacity to implement healthy habits, researchers found the children from Western Victoria reported significant behavioural and quality of life changes including eating less take away food and drinking more water.
The project, led by Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE), with funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), also saw an initial drop in obesity levels during the first two years of the four-year study, although these results weren’t sustained.
Professor Steven Allender, Director of GLOBE, a designated World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, said the changes in health-related quality of life among the children that were sustained were highly encouraging.
“The long-term changes in reported food choices and physical and emotional wellbeing are important firsts for community prevention of child ill health,” Professor Allender said.
“This research really demonstrates that establishing sustained improvements in children’s health needs the backing of the entire community.”
Community partners in the project which began in 2015 included health services, primary care partnerships, primary schools, Western Alliance, business groups, local government and the Victorian Department of Health working from five primary research sites from Hamilton across to Colac.
Researchers collected a range of data for the study including weight and height measurements from more than 7,000 children in Grades 2, 4 and 6.
Professor Allender said the children were monitored for self-reported behavioural changes such as takeaway food and water consumption, physical activity as well as physical and emotional wellbeing.
“The children reported eating less takeaway food and snacks and drinking more water,” Professor Allender said.
“Another significant result was the improved mental wellbeing reported by the children which could also be the result of increased physical activity and a healthier diet.
“Key to these findings is the engagement and leadership of people from right across the community committing to improving the food and physical activity opportunities for kids.”
More than 400 changes were implemented across the study sites to support and encourage healthy choices including improving access to drinking water, creating school drop off zones that encouraged children to walk a short distance to school, health services changing menus to provide only ‘green’ classified food and beverages, screen time reductions and bans on the sale of sugar sweetened food and drink in regional health services.
Rohan Fitzgerald, Chief Executive of the Western District Health Service, said the project demonstrated that co-designed community interventions were an effective response to a big world problem.
“Finding solutions to rising levels of obesity in younger people needs to be a significant focus of policy makers in the future,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
“Having effective evidence-based tools to help groups of people improve their health and wellbeing is a world leading change and represents real progress.”
Janette Lowe, Executive Officer of the Southern Grampians Glenelg Primary Care Partnership said it was wonderful to be involved in a project that showed the power of local communities to solve the difficult problem of childhood obesity.
“This project reinforces that to achieve healthier outcomes, communities need to be in the driver’s seat, leading the change with government and experts in a supporting role,” Ms Lowe said.
Professor Allender said the outstanding results were a huge achievement for the partners involved and the entire community.
“Obesity remains a global problem and this community-led model is attracting international interest because it shows that empowering and enabling communities can result in long-lasting changes in lifestyle habits among children,” Professor Allender said.