by Cormac McLoughlin
Ireland is on course to become the most obese nation in Europe. It is clear that new ideas are required to encourage the Irish nation to exercise and eat healthier. The Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) published by the Health Service Executive (HSE) in January 2017 outlined that despite obesity levels remaining stable since 2012, 16.9% of Irish children are obese. This figure was higher in girls compared to boys. However, this supposedly stable percentage was not applicable to children who came from disadvantaged areas, with obesity increasing in these children as they get older. Sarah O’Brien, head of the Healthy Eating and Active Living Programme, suggests that we have a long way to go in creating a healthy environment for Irish children at home, at school and in the community.
Unfortunately, obesity is not just confined to Irish children. Figures from the National Adult Nutrition Survey in 2011 found that 24% of Irish people were obese while 37% were overweight. The prevalence of obesity in the 18-64 years age group was particularly worrying. Between 1990 and 2011, obesity has increased from 8% to 26% in men and from 13% to 21% in women for this age group. Irish people are evidently becoming more inactive. However, physical activity levels are similar amongst men and women. Data from the Healthy Ireland Survey in 2016 revealed that approximately 40% of the population would like to be more physically active, but when asked to provide an explanation for not exercising, “being too busy” was the most common reason reported.
These figures suggest that previous attempts at tackling obesity in Ireland have not worked. There is a pressing need to try something different.
What is being done currently?
The Irish government launched a National Physical Activity Plan (NPAP) as part of the Healthy Ireland initiative in 2016. This plan targeted eight key action areas, most notably educating the public, young people and children about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Education is fundamental to this plan because it can be passed on to future generations. This may be the first step in lowering obesity levels in Ireland.
According to this plan, communication strategies will be developed to inspire the population to adopt active lifestyles. Get Ireland Active is a brand which has several social media outlets including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Although these resources are available, the advertising has been far from successful. After completing a recent Google search, examples of print or television advertisements promoting Get Ireland Active were non-existent. On the other hand, credit must be given to an Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for two key decisions: investing €38,000 in the Operation Transformation television series and introducing Physical Education as an examinable Leaving Certificate subject.
Operation Transformation reaches an audience of more than 500,000 people in Ireland. An aspect of the show that is being well received by the Irish public is the advertisement of organised park runs. These runs vary in distance and take place across Ireland on a regular basis. There is no financial cost to attend these events and from watching the show, they appear to have a real sense of community. It is encouraging to see that the psychological element of physical activity and behaviour change is recognized by having Dr. Eddie Murphy as a member of the Operation Transformation panel. Dr. Murphy is a registered Clinical Psychologist and a Head Psychologist within the HSE. His presence has been influential in showing Irish people that psychologists are practical, respectful and can help contribute to positive changes in behaviour.
A recent change that divided opinion amongst the Irish public was the conversion of Physical Education into an examinable Leaving Certificate subject. Irish secondary school students have now been given the opportunity to learn about sport psychology, even before entering university. Contemporary issues such as gender differences in sport participation levels will also be taught as part of this new curriculum. This is a massive step forward for Ireland. It has been demonstrated previously in countries such as Sweden that by investing in Physical Education, obesity levels in young people tend to decrease.
What has caused these high obesity levels?
Overworking has certainly contributed to elevated obesity levels in Ireland. Many Irish workers spend long periods of time commuting to centralized areas to make a living. Census data from 2016 suggests that almost 2 million Irish people commute to Dublin every day for work, a figure which has risen 11% since 2011. These people are commuting for 28 minutes on average per journey. This must be impacting levels of fatigue in the Irish workforce, considering that these journeys were previously 26 minutes on average.
By working long hours and travelling long distances every day, Irish workers are returning home with less energy. Several research studies have shown that when parents are tired, the relationship with their children suffers. Their interactions tend to be more hostile and the amount of affection displayed towards each other decreases. When the parent-child relationship suffers, so too does their well-being and physical health. This link is warranted because it has been discussed previously how children from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds in Ireland are more likely to be overweight. Research has suggested that these environments are often characterized by hostile parenting and this may be a target for future intervention plans given the recent success of home visit interventions aimed at improving cognitive and physical development in young Irish children.
One small change can often make all the difference. From personal experience, gradually reducing the amount of sugar that was added to a cup of tea resulted in visible weight loss over a short period of time. Many different things can be contributing to Ireland’s obesity problem, whether this is stress from work or a lack of exercise, but by focusing on one specific area in a way that is manageable, gradual and applicable to different settings, maybe significant changes will happen soon.
How can sport psychologists help?
Ireland’s health service is chronically short of resources. To help improve patient outcomes and get more bang for the taxpayers’ buck, it would make sense that some assistant psychologist positions were given to sport psychologists. Sport psychologists not only have experience working in a counselling environment, but also in promoting physical activity levels and reducing sedentary behaviour.
A common misconception is that sport psychologists only work with elite athletes. Although this can be true for some practitioners, many others are heavily involved in increasing motivation within the general population. Motivation could be described as a process that influences the initiation, perseverance and continuation of behaviour towards a goal. The most powerful form of motivation is intrinsic motivation, commonly described as doing something for the pleasure or satisfaction derived from it. This is the type of motivation we need to promote in the Irish population as opposed to motivation for external rewards, such as looking good in a swimsuit. By promoting intrinsic motivation, sport psychologists can help that 40% of the population who want to start exercising more.
Intrinsic motivation occurs when three psychological needs are satisfied, simply known as Basic Needs Theory. These include autonomy (making our own decisions), relatedness (feeling part of a community) and competency (having some level of mastery or purpose). This need to be competent would be fulfilled by exercising regularly. By increasing personal decision-making and feeling like part of a community, intrinsic motivation is more likely to come about.
If you want to change this behaviour, there are several factors at play. Of these factors, the belief that you can achieve your goal, known as self-efficacy, is fundamental when beginning an exercise plan. Sport psychologists attempt to enhance these self-efficacy beliefs, while also eliminating barriers to exercise and educating clients about how to set goals effectively. It is the responsibility of the sport psychologist to ensure that the client comes up with these goals. Most people can think of a time in their lives when they were unsuccessful at changing the behaviour of a friend or family member. Everyone is aware that when behaviour change is forced upon someone, it is destined to fail.
This is why Ireland is crying out for sport psychologists. Sport psychologists can apply techniques such as SMART goal-setting, which is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timetabled. A common phrase in sport psychology is “control the controllable” which captures the essence of SMART goal-setting. It has been suggested by several Irish sport psychologists such as Enda McNulty, that you are more likely to complete your goals if they are SMART goals. But what would a SMART goal look like? If someone was to choose running as an example, it would involve potentially completing a 5km run three times a week in a local park after work (Specific), tracking the time taken using a pedometer or Fitbit and checking for progress at the end of each week (Measurable), buying appropriate footwear and rain apparel to prevent impact of injury or weather (Action-related), getting fitness levels checked before starting the programme (Realistic) and go running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 6 and 7pm (Time-tabled). Writing down your goals and putting detailed plans in place are essential for maintaining motivation, for example setting reminders on your phone to go running at 6pm each scheduled evening.
There is no such thing as being too healthy. Any strategies that are being put in place to help Irish people become healthier and happier are always required. By launching the NPAP and allowing young people to study Physical Education in more depth, the intrinsic motivation to exercise will increase. Yet as a sport psychology student, it is difficult to ignore that Ireland needs more people with effective behaviour change skills. Sport psychologists can fill this void in the primary healthcare system. By continuing to make psychological knowledge accessible, for example by explaining how fatigue can impact parent-child relationships, sport psychologists can help make a culture change in Ireland that endures.
Cormac McLoughlin is currently completing an MSc in Psychology of Sport and Exercise at the University of Roehampton, London. He has played cricket for Ireland at under 19 level and was part of The Hills Cricket Club side that won the All-Ireland Senior Cup in 2012 and 2014, the Leinster Senior League in 2013 and the Leinster Senior Cup in 2017. He is hoping to carry out a research project this year examining the effects of a unique observation and imagery intervention on cricket performance as part of his studies.
Find Cormac on Twitter: @cormac_94
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