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Reducing the size of the obesity problem

Researchers at Southampton are helping people to lose a clinically important amount of weight – five per cent – sufficient to halve the incidence of diabetes.

Published: 18 March 2019

With the increasing number of unhealthy food options, larger portion sizes and a decrease in exercise, it can seem harder than ever to shed those pounds. We are arguably facing an obesity epidemic; over half of the UK adult population could be obese by 2050, costing the NHS £10bn a year according to the government’s recent Foresight Obesity Report.

Dr Judith Joseph, Senior Research-Enterprise Fellow in Psychology and colleagues develop interactive health-related behaviour change interventions, and their LifeGuide research programme has attracted over £50m in funding over the last 10 years.

Our Group’s POWeR (Positive Online Weight Reduction) intervention has caught the attention of health professionals across the UK, and is currently being made available to over two million people by Hampshire County Council and other organisations.

Judith Joseph - Senior Research-Enterprise Fellow

Obesity has many physical effects on the body. The most obvious and well documented is the increased risk of type 2 diabetes; not only do more people get the disease now, but it is also harder to treat as the body becomes resistant to its own insulin. If we don’t make significant lifestyle changes, more than five million people in the UK will have type 2 diabetes by 2025, according to Diabetes UK.

Second to smoking, obesity is the biggest cause of some cancers, because fat cells upset the way that the immune system fights off cancer. Some arthritis and back problems are a result of being overweight as a lot of pressure is put on joints such as the knees. Obesity also increases the risk of heart disease.

The end result to all of these medical conditions is that more strain is put on an already stretched NHS. Yet even a five per cent reduction in weight will result in health benefits.

User-centred development

Judith explains that the POWeR intervention is based on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines for weight management and was carefully developed with users to ensure it is accessible, engaging and effective for a wide range of people, including different genders, ages and education levels, with or without long-term health conditions.

“Users log on weekly to track their weight, set and review their eating and physical activity goals, and receive automated personalised advice based on their progress. They can choose from sessions providing advice and support for behavioural change, including: POWeR tools – behaviour change techniques; and POWeR stories – examples of how other people have successfully changed their behaviour using these methods.”

In a large trial of 500 people, 30 per cent of people that used POWeR were able to lose a clinically important amount of weight (five per cent – sufficient to halve the incidence of diabetes) 12 months after starting to use the intervention. They achieved this with minimal support – just three emails and one brief phone call during the year from a practice nurse.

We have been awarded funding from Innovate UK to develop POWeR into an app, and we are now working with Changing Health, an SME that provides digital interventions for diabetes management to the NHS. The POWeR content has been integrated into their diabetes app and will shortly be made available to the general public through the NHS.

Judith Joseph - Senior Research-Enterprise Fellow

“We are really pleased that POWeR is already helping so many people and will reach even more users once rolled out by Changing Health. This is the reason we work so hard to develop interventions that are effective and make a real difference to those that need it.”

Find out more about the LifeGuide research programme.

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