Physical activity is a big problem in the UK. We’re not doing enough of it. Lots of evidence suggests that when people are more active they are also healthier, have a greater sense of wellbeing, and help reduce their risk of future disease. So, why isn’t everybody active? This is a difficult question. We could ask why some people still smoke or why we don’t all eat a healthy diet. The potential answers to these questions are complex and multifaceted.
We do know a few things about physical activity however; firstly, females are less active than males at all ages. Secondly, adolescence is a key time when females become less active and the divide between males’ and females’ activity widens; around the beginning of secondary school. Thirdly, when adolescents stop being active, it becomes even more difficult to (re-)engage them. Fourth, being physically active is not a simple as it seems: the choice and ability to be active is wrapped in myriad social and psychological factors.
The PLAN-A team, led by Dr Simon Sebire at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences, hope to advance our understanding of how we can increase the physical activity of girls during early adolescence. We are testing the feasibility of increasing the activity levels of Year 8 girls (aged 12-13) through a ‘peer-led’ concept that has proved successful in reducing adolescent smoking rates (www.decipher-impact.com/). The basic concept of PLAN-A is: 1) ask all Year 8 girls in a school to nominate who they think are the most influential girls in their year, 2) recruit the top 15% of the girls nominated to attend a training course to be a peer-supporter, 3) train peer-supporters to recognise the importance of being active, how they can overcome barriers commonly faced by teenage girls and incorporate more activity into their friends’ lives, and how to communicate effectively, and 4) send the girls back to their peer groups to informally encourage their peers to be more active.
A central belief that underpins PLAN-A is that the people taking part – the girls whose behaviour we are trying to change and, to a lesser extent, the trainers who will train the girls – are best placed to know what will work for them. Despite having a diverse range of experience in our team, we are not Year 8 girls, and as such can only go so far to develop an educational experience that meets their expectations. If the PLAN-A intervention is to help increase the physical activity levels of Year 8 girls, it needs to reflect what they find important, speak their language, engage and enthuse and inspire them to encourage their friends to be active. As such, we have continuously engaged our “end users” in the design of the PLAN-A study, as can be seen in the following narrative.
Our stakeholder engagement started when the grant application was being written. A group of adolescent girls from the DECIPHer ALPHA (Advise Leading to Public Health Advancement) group took part in a focus group and gave valuable feedback on the design of a peer-led activity intervention. The intervention we designed expressly adhered to the girls’ suggestions that the training should focus on health, vitality and enjoyment. The girls also wanted the training to equip them with practical skills. We took what the girls said and edited the training and recruitment materials in light of this.
Before we conducted the ‘feasibility’ study we wanted to explore the materials and training we had developed in light of the DECIPHer ALPHA group’s suggestions with more year 8 girls. We hoped that this would provide a further opportunity to tailor the intervention to their preferences. A school in Wiltshire kindly allowed us to pilot the whole of the PLAN-A intervention with their Year 8 girls. As such, we tested the recruitment, peer nomination, pupil briefings and training with these girls. The process was interesting, a little reassuring, and hugely constructive. Children can be good critics!
In total we conducted six focus groups with the Year 8 girls. The first two focus groups sought feedback on our proposed peer-supporter recruitment and training materials, including the study logo. We mainly wanted to know if what we were proposing appealed to Year 8 girls. Although we weren’t too far off, we redesigned elements of the intervention and then invited the girls to two more focus groups to check whether we had done what they asked. Following a few more revisions based on their input, we felt we were ready to rehearse the intervention.
We ran a pilot recruitment drive, which entailed a presentation to all Year 8 girls and an information pack for themselves and their parents. This went well and 95.7 % of girls in the year wanted to take part. We then conducted the peer nomination with the year group. This provided the chance to test the nomination process out. Again, this went smoothly and a few days later we invited the girls who had been nominated as peer supporters to a briefing session. As they suggested in the earlier focus groups, the girls were reminded of the kudos of being identified as one of the most influential people in their year group. Of the 14 girls who were nominated, 12 attended the training.
In the meantime we trained our PLAN-A trainers – the two people who would be training the peer supporters. The trainers received a training course (run by study staff) and then delivered the peer supporter training. We had an experienced observer sit in and watch the training to help identify any issues that may not be apparent to the trainers (and to also check that everything flowed as planned). Immediately after the training, we interviewed each trainer and conducted two focus groups with the girls who took part. We wanted a ‘warts and all’ account of their experience with PLAN-A, and that’s what we got!
In general the girls loved the training (and their trainers). The biggest issue was that there was too much writing and not enough moving. The trainers largely agreed with the girls and raised similar issues. We took this feedback and used it to change as many activities as possible to reflect what the girls wanted. We revised the activities and now have a “final” intervention package that targets the intended learning outcomes using much more activity, less writing and sitting, and more role play. We will be delivering the intervention over the next few months and will, once again, seek detailed feedback on how this was received by the people taking part.
This project is funded by the National Institute for Health Research [Public Health Research Programme] (project number 13/90/16). The views and opinions expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR PHR Programme or the Department of Health.