Combating teenage inactivity: Innovative project assesses whether giving teenagers activity vouchers can improve their health

An innovative project to assess whether giving teenagers vouchers to spend on activities of their choice can improve their health has been launched at Swansea’s Limitless Trampoline Park.

The ACTIVE project, which will be carried out by a team of researchers based at the Farr Institute CIPHER, Swansea University Medical School, in collaboration with the City and County of Swansea, will involve eight secondary schools in Swansea, and around 1,000 pupils aged 13 to 14.

The project, funded by the British Heart Foundation, aims to see whether giving teenagers vouchers to spend on activities of their choice – whether it’s dancing, football, swimming, karate, skateboarding or BMXing – can reduce the time spent being sedentary, improve fitness, lower the risk of heart disease and improve general health.

Physical inactivity is one of the most important issues in public health today, with heart disease killing around one in four people in the UK. It has been linked to heath issues later in life and is considered a key contributor to increased obesity. 

Studies have indicated that there is a decline in physical activity in adolescence.  There are growing concerns that these young people are spending increasing amounts of time on sedentary activities including watching television, using a computer and playing video games.  Research has shown that physical activity can control weight, reduce stress and even result in a higher IQ.

To look into the growing problem of teenage inactivity, the team at Swansea University Medical School set up the ACTIVE programme.  This work follows on from an earlier study, where children in a Swansea school were given vouchers to spend on sporting activities. 

The study found that Year Nine pupils who received the vouchers had improved attitudes to physical activity, increased socialisation with friends and improved fitness and physical activity.

The ACTIVE project will involve Year Nine pupils at Pentrehafod, Bishop Vaughan, YGG Bryn Tawe, Cefn Hengoed, Birchgrove, Dylan Thomas, Morriston and Gowerton schools. 

Four schools will receive £20 per month in vouchers, for 12 months, to spend on physical activities of their choice.  The other four schools will act as a comparison group and will continue as usual, but will receive a fully-funded mindfulness course for pupils or teachers as a thank you for participation. 

Both groups will take part in data collecting exercises, measuring fitness, motivation and heart health and pupils will wear an accelerometer device to record activity levels.  The researchers will study the data collected along with routinely collected data such as adolescents’ health and educational records.

Professor Sinead Brophy, a principal investigator from the Farr Institute at Swansea University Medical School, said: "This project is trying to examine how we might help teenagers be more active and how being active affects educational attainment, social relationships, and the health, fitness and wellbeing of the pupils.

“As well as examining the long-term impact of the project on the health of teenagers my team will explore if they are any cost saving benefits, for example in reducing the number of visits to GP.”

All schools involved will receive a report on the outcome of the study with recommendations for future interventions. 

Cllr Jen Raynor, Cabinet Member for Education, City and County of Swansea, said: “We are delighted to be a part of the ACTIVE project giving teenagers greater opportunities to engage in different physical activities.

“We see this research as crucial to us understanding what teenagers want from their physical and sporting experiences. 

“This evidence will help us, as a local authority, enormously in the planning and provision of activities for young people in Swansea.”

Ruth Coombs, Head of British Heart Foundation (BHF) Cymru said: “With one in four people dying of heart disease in Wales, and over 350,000 living with its burden, there is still much more we need to know about how to stop this devastation.

“Today nearly a third of all our children are obese or overweight, increasing participation in physical activity is essential to improve our children’s health and preventing future cardiovascular disease. 

“Our funding for the ACTIVE research project at Swansea University will enable us to better understand the barriers to physical activity by children and develop new ways to tackle the growing problem of inactivity in young people.”

Follow the ACTIVE project on Twitter @ActiveProject_