Being physically active is good for children's physical and mental health. Few adolescent girls are active enough to get these health benefits and teenage girls face a lot of barriers to being physically active. Research shows that most school-based programmes to increase adolescents' physical activity have not worked, however, few good quality studies have been tried in the UK and new approaches are needed.
As children move into adolescence, friends' opinions and activity levels become very influential on their beliefs about and levels of physical activity. If we can harness the power of peer-influences to have a positive impact on adolescent girls' activity, then this could be a new way to inspire girls to become and stay active. We know that peer-led anti-smoking projects can reduce teen smoking rates. In these projects, teens nominate peers who they think are influential and who they respect, to be peer-supporters. These pupils then attend out-of-school training about smoking and then are asked to return to school for ten weeks and have informal conversations with their peers to persuade them not to smoke or to quit. In the PLAN-A study we want to adapted this idea to develop a project to train girls to influence their friends' physical activity.
Before conducting large studies to test programmes to increase physical activity it is important to carefully craft the programme by including girls in its development. This helps to test whether girls find it acceptable and whether they engage well enough in our research to make a larger study worthwhile. PLAN-A has developed and tested the possibility of running a school-based peer-led physical activity project among 12- to 13-year-old girls.
We spent eight months refining the project by having group conversations with adolescent girls about how they would design the training and the wording they would use. The project followed the peer-nomination, peer-supporter training, and ten week informal conversation process that the smoking cessation study did. Peer-supporters were trained by experts in physical activity and youth work.
We practiced the project in one school to unearth any problems. We then did a larger test of the project in six schools. Four schools were chosen at random to be 'project' schools and run the peer-supporter training programme and two schools were 'comparison schools' and did not do the peer-supporter training. We collected data from Year 8 girls in all six schools at three different times; before the schools were chosen to be 'project' or 'comparison' schools, straight after the ten week project, and one year after the first data collection. We were mainly interested in finding out whether we could recruit girls to be in the project and whether the data collection, peer-nomination, peer-supporter training and ten week informal discussion periods were successful.
We also measured the girls' activity levels using activity monitors and their motivation for being active using questionnaires. We carried out interviews and group discussions with the peer-supporters, girls who were not peer-supporters, parents, trainers and school contacts to find out what was successful and what could be changed about the project.
This study will give us the information that we need to decide whether or not a peer-led project to increase teenage girls' activity levels is worth testing in a larger study. At the end of the project we will give the results to the schools, hold an event to present our findings to local healthcare decision makers and also publish our findings in academic journals.
If you would like to know anything else about the study please contact the Research Associate, Kate Banfield (Tel: 0117 331 1012. Email: email@example.com).