Friday 19 March 2021

Simple, likeable, luck? How to get physical activity research into practice

Posted by Nicola McCullogh, Post-graduate Researcher, Northumbria University

Sometime last year – I can’t remember exactly when due to lockdown blur – I was asked by my mentor Caroline Dodd-Reynolds if I’d like to join the Fuse Physical Activity Network. I’d been to a number of workshops and I loved the focus on putting knowledge into practice, so I said yes and spent the rest of the year being in awe of the speakers we’ve had from across the world. And the discussion following the first workshop of 2021 (22nd January) was so rich that we wanted to do a bit of a follow-up to – as they say – ‘continue the conversation’.

                                     Watch a recording the 5th Fuse Physical Activity Workshop

This isn’t a report on the workshop itself, but it would be wrong to start on the discussion between the attendees without first acknowledging the speakers who inspired that discussion. First Professor Adrian Bauman (University of Sydney) spoke about how we can improve physical activity practices locally and nationally, and then Ben Rigby (Durham University) took us through 10 guiding principles for local physical activity practice which were developed by the Fuse Physical Activity Network. Some of the points that jumped out from the chat box during the presentations were around the topics of:
  • Inclusivity: How can we make sure that physical activity messages get to specific groups of people? (e.g. can we do this via carers?)
  • Scalability: Physical activity interventions tend to be less effective when scaled up; is this because they are often adapted in the scaling-up process?
  • ‘Business as usual’: Should we move away from thinking about physical activity programmes and towards encouraging physical activity by integrating it into people’s daily lives?
  • Making every contact count: How can we measure the effects of conversations between health professionals and patients about regular physical activity in a way that meets the definition of ‘evidence’ for all of the different groups interested in this sort of practice and research?
As you can see, there was so much going on that it’s no surprise there were a few things we didn’t get to explore on the day! So we pulled together the remaining key themes from the chat and these are considered below.

Are physical activity interventions long enough, as it can take years to become active/inactive? And when we’re researching interventions do we give enough thought to people staying active afterwards?

This seems to be one of those areas where there’s an unfortunate disconnect between research and practice. At the workshop we discussed the value of academic research in understanding the needs of communities but also acknowledged the potentially lengthy timeframes involved before research hits policy and practice. On the other hand, limitations on the practice side can include timescales over which practitioners need to deliver interventions due to funding requirements, meaning that interventions may be shorter than they would ideally be. When it comes to people staying active, although studies with follow-ups do exist, interventions tend to try to give their participants the skills to stay active on their own once the programme finishes, rather than being ‘maintenance interventions’. Maybe we need to try an approach a bit like weight loss groups for ongoing support?

Could we use financial incentives to increase people’s physical activity?

Anyone who knows me knows I love a bit of self-determination theory so I’m going to default to that for my answer, though of course other theories are available! Tying in with the above question, I think what we all want to see is interventions with long-term effects. Financial incentives might encourage physical activity while incentives are available, but we’re unfortunately not giving people the motivation to continue without these rewards and we know the rewards won’t last forever. On another level, those running the interventions have targets to reach to show the effects of their work, so they’re operating under short-term reward systems, too. Shifting our targets towards long-term effects may help.

How can we address the social factors that influence physical activity?

Social determinants of health (conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age) are well recognised by physical activity researchers and practitioners. On a broad level, interventions try to reduce anything that would hinder participation for the groups they aim to help. But an interesting area of thought is how we can use people’s sense of belonging to a group, and their perception of what that group does, to encourage them to be active (e.g. encouraging new parents to be active together at parent and baby groups). We just need to explore the best ways to do this when people identify with groups to different degrees and their group identifications can change over time.

Our efforts can be supported by following the 10 guiding principles for local physical activity practice, which bring together some of the issues discussed above including social determinants of health, inclusivity, and harnessing things that are already happening to promote physical activity. Over the years there have been many different initiatives to encourage people to get active, and some of them have really stuck. The Daily Mile is a simple idea to get children moving in schools, and it seems to be something that works for pupils and staff because it’s been running for over five years now. And Park Run has been successful around the world for over a decade. So it might seem like it’s difficult to get something in place that has an effect, that is sustainable and that people actually like, but sometimes with a bit of luck we can put research into practice and it all comes together.

I think the overall conclusion – summarised very nicely by Professor Bauman – was "keep trying".

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

Thank you to everyone who attended the webinar and contributed to the discussion, and to everyone involved in the Fuse Physical Activity Network for their support.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

Should pregnancy 'be incentive enough' to quit smoking?

Guest post by Susan Jones, Research Associate, Teesside University

I have seen many people on twitter express the view that thinking about their baby should make pregnant women automatically quit smoking. Indeed many women when they decide to try for a baby or find out they are pregnant do quit smoking. However, it does seem illogical - and shocking - to many that this is not always the case.

For those who do continue to smoke, it is perhaps more of a hint of a complex web of reasons behind their smoking behaviour, rather than any greater willingness to harm their baby. Smoking throughout pregnancy is often associated with environmental and social deprivation, which gives us a clue. Hilary Graham’s seminal work into women’s smoking and its association with family health, published in 1987, opened the door to a new understanding of what some of the reasons might be for this apparently illogical and paradoxical behaviour on the part of pregnant women from deprived communities. Graham concluded that:
"The study suggests that, for a significant minority of mothers, poverty and caring combine with low levels of physical and emotional energy, with sleep problems and with feelings of social isolation. In this context, smoking appeared to provide a way of coping with caring-in-poverty: a way of coping alone with the demands of full-time caring and with the struggle of making ends meet."
This work revealed that there were other, stronger reasons to continue smoking, which counteracted any impulse to quit.

Guilt and shame

An earlier study of ours heard pregnant smokers confess to feeling guilty and ashamed of smoking in pregnancy and how they are very aware of the stigma associated with their behaviour:
“But then once I lit it up and had half of it I felt guilty. But it took that edge away, but I still felt guilty. So if I felt even more guilty I probably mebbees wouldn’t have touched it, but I feel weak because I have had to do it.”

“I think the kids always make it like, they have more effect on you than what anyone else does, because they're, well you feel guilty if you're letting them down and doing something they don't want you to do.”
We also found that sometimes it can be a distrust of public health messages combined with a real lack of knowledge about the mechanics of how smoking affects the developing baby. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that, for whatever reason, not everyone says they want to quit; but of those who do want to quit, some say they do not feel able to. For the sceptics out there, this may seem only subtly different to choosing to smoke, alternatively it may be a real barrier to quitting. Graham’s work would suggest the latter. More recent research has built on her findings and investigated what methods of support may work for these pregnant women, who do not quit, and for whom the health outcomes are comparatively worse for themselves and their babies.

What can be done?

Research over several decades has shown that there are ways to support pregnant women to quit smoking, focusing on:
  • Referring to stop smoking support services
  • Offering support to change behaviour
  • Support through medication.
It is clear now that opt-out approaches to referral and carbon monoxide monitoring and much more personalised support are also helpful to women (see our short video below).


Work has been undertaken to implement these supports more fully; e.g. the Local Maternity Systems (LMS) in North East England designed the Maternity Pathway and have led the work across the organisational systems to integrate these mechanisms. Becca Scott, the North East Local Maternity Systems Public Health Prevention Lead says:
"The LMS have led North East organisations and service users to contribute to the target of 5% or less women smoking in pregnancy by 2025. That would mean 2723 fewer women smoking at time of delivery across the North East since 2018. It does this by offering all expectant mothers, and their partners, a multiagency-developed, smoke-free pregnancy pathway and minimum service standards (as detailed in each of the Maternity providers bespoke plans). The impact of the engagement with the work has seen prioritisation throughout all Local Authority Health and Wellbeing boards, as well as consistency in the way smoking in pregnancy is identified and supported, which is demonstrated in significant improvement in adherence to NICE Guidance."
What more can be done?

The results of this partnership work are encouraging. Is there anything else that can be done? The evidence for the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of financial incentives to support pregnant women to quit has been building. Trials have been conducted which have found that there is "substantial evidence for the efficacy of incentives for smoking cessation in pregnancy" – however this idea has encountered significant public scepticism and opposition.

ash. Smoking in Pregnancy Challenge Group Webinar - Incentive schemes

Although there has been more balanced reporting too and more recently, the headline below suggests the idea has become more acceptable.

Capture from The Sun online (09/03/21)

Modelling financial incentives in smoking in pregnancy

A team of us (details below*) have been awarded funding from the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East & North Cumbria Open Funding Competition to look into an alternative way to take into account the views and responses from all stakeholders, including staff, pregnant women, and the public. We will also be building a mathematical model based on Evolutionary Game Theory (EGT). EGT is a mathematical framework of contests, strategies and analytics into which Darwinian evolution can be modelled. It is designed to capture the strategic interactions between stakeholders, because ultimately these interactions will drive health behaviour. Incentivisation will be modelled to see how it affects some behaviours and in what contexts. We hope the model will be able to guide commissioning and provision, so that any intervention is as effective and cost-effective as possible, without having to conduct further lengthy and expensive trials beforehand. Watch this space!

*Associate Professor Emma Giles (Teesside University), Professor Falko Sniehotta (Newcastle University and University of Twente), Dr Jean Adams (University of Cambridge) and other partners working in NHS Trusts and local authorities. Colleagues in the School of Computing, Design and Digital Technologies, Associate Professor The Anh Han and Tedy Cimpeanu from Teesside University.

Friday 5 March 2021

Patient and Public involvement with Parents during a Pandemic: the four ‘P’ challenge

Posted by Hannah Batten, Food and Human Nutrition undergraduate student, Newcastle University.  Hannah is on a placement year with the Population Health Sciences Institute, as part of the MapMe intervention team.

If you have a primary school age child, then you’ve probably heard of the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP). For 13 years, it has collected data on the height and weight of children aged 4-5 and 10-11 years old in England. This information is used to calculate what is called the ‘weight status’ of a child and the results reported to parents via letter. Unfortunately, these letters often receive a mixed response, with many parents mistrusting the results.

Research has also shown that parents often struggle to recognise if their child is overweight, preventing them from taking action to address this.
Body image scales on the MapMe website are currently being updated for MapMe2

This issue sparked the development of the MapMe intervention, led by Fuse Director Prof Ashley Adamson and Angela Jones, which aims to help parents assess child overweight / obesity. The MapMe tool includes:
  • sex and age specific body images of children ranging from underweight to very overweight
  • information on the consequences of being overweight in childhood
  • advice on healthy eating, physical activity and links to further support.
Funded for large scale testing by the National Institute for Health Research, the MapMe tool will be delivered as part of the National Child Measurement Programme across nine areas, aiming to improve how parents respond to the letters and the NCMP process, supporting parents to take action.

The project originally had a 3-year time frame, with the intervention scheduled to be delivered in 2020/21. But, as with many other things, COVID-19 got in the way and with schools closed this prevented the delivery of the NCMP, which delayed the project by a year. Although this was disappointing, it has allowed extra time for us to focus on preparing for the next part of the study focusing on Patient and Public Involvement (PPI).

Doing PPI during a pandemic

PPI involves gaining insight during the research process from members of the public, improving research by providing additional expertise from a non-researcher perspective. One key task for the MapMe2 study was to figure out how we could recruit and run an online Parent Involvement Panel (PIP) to help review documents and study materials, when parents are already dealing with a global pandemic.

Recruitment and communication

To accommodate people being stuck at home during COVID-19, parents were recruited through social media and network sites such as the Newcastle University staff pages. Once the Panel was created, we asked parents how they wanted us to communicate with them and kept in frequent contact via email and newsletter to keep them informed and engaged in the project. As this was unknown territory for everyone, good communication with the Parent Involvement Panel was essential.

Moving online

Pre COVID-19, we had planned to hold face-to-face meetings with the parents in easily accessible venues such as the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. However, as has become the norm with lockdown and social distancing measures, in person gatherings have been replaced with Zoom meetings. On the plus side, this allowed the meetings to go ahead and parents to attend from any location, but did result in frequent technical issues! When preparing for remote meetings, we sent out documents to parents in advance and scheduled breaks to avoid ‘Zoom fatigue’. We also used ice breakers at the beginning of sessions to make parents feel at ease.

Making information accessible to all

COVID-19 has intensified the digital divide in the UK, with a large number of people having limited access to, or understanding of, devices. Reading information and training documents on the small screen of a smartphone or tablet is not a practical or enjoyable experience. In an attempt to address this, we send hard copies of the Parent Involvement Panel manual through the post.

We have also created videos that will be posted on YouTube (example below), making them easily accessible to parents whenever they wish. The videos include members of the study team welcoming and informing parents about the project and their role, as well as short animations providing training tips. Although these are perhaps not Oscar-winning performances, they provide the information in an alternative and accessible format for volunteers.


Learning from our experience in carrying out remote Patient and Public Involvement during COVID-19, information needs to be provided in an accessible way like videos, and volunteers need to be aware and comfortable with the options available to feedback their opinions.

Saying thank you

Finally, and most importantly, is to say to our participants that we are extremely grateful for their time and input, particularly during these uncertain times.

As long as we are mindful of these new challenges, online Patient and Public involvement can still be a valuable and effective way to work.

Part of our Fuse blog Student Series
The Fuse blog Student Series showcases posts by students who have been challenged to write a blog as part of their studies at one of the universities in the Fuse collaboration, the NIHR School for Public Health Research, or perhaps further afield. The authors may be new to blogging and we hope to provide a 'safe space' for the students to explore their subject and find their voice in the world of public health research.