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Schools alone cannot help to prevent childhood obesity, study finds

School-based healthy lifestyle interventions alone are not effective in the fight against childhood obesity, WAVES study researchers have warned.

The warning comes after one of the largest childhood obesity prevention trials undertaken to date found that a healthy lifestyle intervention carried out in dozens of schools did not lead to significant changes in pupils’ weight.

Our research, combined with wider evidence, suggests that childhood obesity prevention is unlikely to be achieved by schools alone.

Professor Peymané AdabUniversity of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research

WAVES study

Led by the University of Birmingham, and involving Professor Raj Bhopal from the Usher Institute, the West Midlands ActiVe lifestyle and healthy Eating in School children (WAVES) study was a trial which aimed to assess the clinical and cost-effectiveness of a programme of activities designed to support children aged six and seven in keeping their weight at a healthy level by promoting healthy eating and physical activity.

The 12-month WAVES study intervention included a daily additional 30 minute school-time physical activity opportunity, a six-week interactive skill based programme in conjunction with Aston Villa Football Club, signposting of local family physical activity opportunities through six-monthly mail-outs and termly school led family healthy cooking skills workshops.

Almost 1,500 5-6 year olds from 54 state primary schools in the West Midlands took part in the trial. Their measurements – including weight, height, percentage body fat, waist circumference, skinfold thickness, and blood pressure – were taken when they started the trial.  They also wore an activity tracker for five days, recorded their dietary intake and took part in assessments to establish their perceived quality of life, social acceptance and body image.  These measurements were taken again 15 months and 30 months later and were compared among pupils who were or were not taking part in the intervention.

BMJ paper

The results of the randomised controlled trial, published today in The BMJ, found that the intervention did not result in a significant difference in participants’ weight status.

Whilst school is an important setting for influencing children’s health behaviour, and delivery of knowledge and skills to support healthy lifestyles is one of their mandatory functions, widespread policy change and broader influences from the family, community, media and the food industry is also needed. Although wider implementation of this WAVES study intervention cannot be recommended for obesity prevention, the lower cost components could be considered by schools to fulfil their mandated responsibilities for health and wellbeing education

Dr Miranda Pallan and the wider research team

Read more in the BMJ article