Childhood obesity could be greatly reduced using targeted health programmes in schools, new research has shown.
A study of the long-term impact of a Healthy Schools Programme carried out in five primary schools in Tallaght found just 16 per cent of the children taking part were obese four years after the programme started, compared to 25 per cent of children in two nearby schools that did not take part.
Focusing on promoting diet, exercise and mental health, the programme was implemented between 2009 and 2011 by the Childhood Development Initiative, an organisation working to improve outcomes for children in disadvantaged areas.
At the time of the first study, an evaluation team from Trinity College Dublin measured a range of outcomes including body mass index, eating habits, engagement in after-school activities, and parental engagement in health-promoting activities, but found little difference between the intervention group and control group.
A follow-up study conducted last year found tangible benefits of the programme that took time to become apparent.
In addition to the obese children, an additional 10 per cent of children in the intervention schools were overweight at the end of the study, compared to 16 per cent of children in the control schools. Overall, 73 per cent of children in the intervention schools were within the “normal” weight range for their age, compared to just 58 per cent in the control schools.
Children taking part in the programme also showed “significant improvement” in social support and peer relations compared with the control group.
Programme director Catherine Comiskey, who carried out both studies, said it was important to take a medium rather than a short term view of intervention programmes using a “whole school” approach.
“The results of this follow up study confirm the potential of a health focused intervention to benefit children, however it has taken a number of years for its benefits to become evident,” she said.
Chief executive of the Childhood Development Initiative Marian Quinn said if childhood health was to be improved, intervention programmes needed to be embedded at the heart of school policy and ethos, rather than "an add on for teachers".
“We have learnt that it is not about just doing the intervention. Outcomes varied across the intervention schools based on how ready a school was to deliver the programme and how embedded it was within school activity,” she said.
The authors of the study have recommended that a national framework for health promotion in schools be developed jointly by the Departments of Education and Health, with local committees made up of community health services and local authority representatives.
They also suggested health promotion be included in training for teachers and other professionals providing services for children.
Minister of State with responsibility for primary care Alex White described the findings as “highly positive” and said his department would review the results to “identify how best to work effectively with schools in order to support and enhance the health of young children”.