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Solace blog

31st May 2022

Reducing obesity in local communities – what can research tell us?

For the past few months the news has been dominated by the rising cost of living. Both celebrity chefs and scientists have flagged that the squeezing of household budgets could lead to an increase in obesity levels across the country. This is a worrying thought, as there is already a major obesity health crisis in the UK. Over a quarter of adults in the UK are affected by the condition.

Local authorities have a vital role to play in helping to reduce obesity in their local communities. But until recently, it has been difficult for staff in local councils to know which interventions have been effective, and to understand how or why they work.

On the flip side, the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) invests more than £1 billion a year in research to improve the health and wellbeing of the nation. And over the last decade, it has invested heavily in research aimed at preventing or managing obesity.

NIHR Evidence recently worked on a piece of work looking to bring these two things together. Along with the help of many colleagues, they have summarised and brought together 143 research studies funded by the NIHR. In addition, we had conversations with staff at local councils and at national organisations – all of which has fed into an evidence-based review of what local authorities could do to reduce obesity.

Two areas highlighted by research are investing in active travel and increasing access to public transport. Not only is there  evidence to support these approaches, they often also align with local sustainability and carbon reduction plans. We also found that improving the built environment, including expanding access to green space, can increase physical activity, as well as tying in with sustainability goals. Small changes, such as removing bushes, can encourage use of parks by making them feel more open and safer.

However, looking at the NIHR research, interventions in schools to increase physical fitness or alter dietary habits have achieved limited results. The evidence suggests that investing in the wider factors that influence children in daily life is likely to be of better value than school-based interventions.

Obesity is the result of many, connected factors. The review finds that action is needed across multiple different areas to tackle this complex crisis. This could include the food environment, weight management programmes, leisure services, and efforts to prevent obesity in the community. Having spoken to staff working in local authorities, we also discovered how different local areas are, and how local authorities must take the approaches that will work best for them. Even within a local authority, we were told that the approach taken in one neighbourhood may need to differ from that in a neighbourhood only a mile away.

Overall, the review highlights that we need to embrace a systems approach. This moves away from a series of isolated interventions. Instead, it seeks to understand the system as a whole, and focus efforts on the interventions that represent the most powerful levers for change.

We hope this research provides useful information to support local authorities. One thing is certainly clear – to have a significant impact on the obesity crisis, everyone needs to be involved.

Dr Deniz Gursul,  Research Dissemination Manager and Martha Powell, Communications Manager, at the National Institute for Health and Social Care Research

Thumbnail photo credit to Nina H. Niestroj, NHS Photodesign