Putting a lid on child obesity with Australian-first online program

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Online lifestyle program promoting healthy weight in pre-schoolers to be trialled in the Illawarra. 

An Australian-first online healthy lifestyle program that aims to promote healthy weight in pre-schoolers will be trialled in the Illawarra over the next 12 months.

Researchers from UOW are seeking 160 parents from the Illawarra area to take part in the trial of the ‘Time2bHealthy’ Program, which they anticipate will improve children’s eating habits, physical activity, screen time and sleep as well as help them reach and maintain a healthy weight.

The 11-week online program for parents with preschool aged children who are overweight, or at risk of becoming overweight, is the first of its kind in Australia. Participants will be asked to answer a series of questionnaires, have measurements taken and report on changes in eating habits and physical activity over a 12-month period. 

Megan Hammersley, a PhD student at UOW’s Early Start Research Institute (ESRI) who has been an Accredited Practising Dietitian for more than 15 years, will run the study, which focuses on providing guidance on how to implement change, rather than simply supplying information.

“It can help families to establish life-long healthy habits in the areas of healthy eating, physical activity, screen-time and sleep,” Megan said.

“Quite often it is difficult for parents to attend traditional face-to-face appointments or sessions due to travel, cost and childcare for other siblings. Because this program is online, it can be completed in the participant’s own home and can be worked on at a time that’s convenient to them.” 

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Megan said the program, which was developed a few years ago and trialled with a small group of parents, shows great promise, with parents who completed the program commenting that it was “helpful and practical”. 

“Parents increased their knowledge about dietary intake and physical activity recommendations for children. There was also a reduction in the percentage of children who were overweight by the end of the program,” Megan said.

“Because the program has shown great potential, we are now conducting a much larger study – a randomised controlled trial. This will involve around 160 participants who will be randomly assigned to an intervention group or a control group.”  

Megan said early childhood is a critical time for the development of healthy lifestyle practices, which are not only important in physical health, but can also heavily influence cognitive development and social and emotional wellbeing.

“Early childhood is a period of time when lifestyle behaviours such as physical inactivity and healthy eating are established. It becomes more challenging to change unhealthy behaviours as children get older and therefore it is crucial that healthy habits are established in early childhood.

“The influence of parents at this stage is vitally important, which is why this program is parent-focused.”  

As a dietitian, Megan has too often seen the result of many years of unhealthy lifestyle habits in the form of conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

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“I became very interested in prevention and where better to start than early childhood, before unhealthy habits become embedded,” she said.

“My passion for the area was also inspired by having two children of my own.”

If the program is shown to be successful, Megan hopes to implement it more widely. She also hopes to continue her research in this area, specifically looking at further opportunities to use technology-assisted programs.

More information: Information flyer | Detailed participant information sheet.

(Source: University of Wollongong)

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Date Created: February 18, 2016 Date Modified: February 29, 2016