Steve Haake: Nudging the nation to better health

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Articles about overweight children, rising levels of obesity and diabetes appear in the news almost every day. Most recently the World Health Organisation reported that nearly three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women in the UK will be overweight by 2020. That’s less than five years away.

Given these dire predictions, the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (the AWRC) is a timely intervention, for Sheffield, the UK and the rest of the world. The AWRC is being set up by Sheffield Hallam University with support from the UK Government. It will develop “innovations that help people move”. The word innovation relates to products, gadgets and technologies; help indicates that nudging works better than forcing and move tells you it is all about physical activity.

The AWRC’s focus on moving more is because while obesity might be the symptom, the problem is that we’ve spent the last few hundred years engineering physical activity out of our lives and then the last 50 years engineering highly calorific food into it. Sedentary behaviour and a stream of rich food can lead to all sorts of problems appearing in our lives as chronic disease.

The Government’s own figures show that the average life expectancy at birth in Sheffield for men is 78.8 and 82.4 for women, but that the healthy life expectancy at birth is only 60.8 for men and 59.1 for women. So, on average, men in Sheffield report that their last 18 years of life are unhealthy, while for women it is over 23 years.  If this was the first 23 years of life there would be uproar.

So why aren’t we more physically active?  Because it’s hard and it goes against our inbuilt laziness. I know, because I fight laziness every day – take the car or walk? Take the stairs or the lift? Sit or stand?

The UK Government, local government and agencies such as Sport England have done sterling work trying to increase numbers playing sport, swimming and walking. However, success has been limited.

What is needed is a new way of doing things. This is where the AWRC comes in. It will act as a hothouse of innovation, bringing together those who make things like apps, activity loggers, sports equipment, orthotics, and even clinical devices. Anything in fact that gets us moving just that little bit more.  

Of course it’s not just about a gadget or widget, it’s about how it’s used. Just hand over a pedometer to someone and they might look at you as if you’re mad. However, tell them that there’s a new company-wide competition and the team with the most number of steps wins and it might just get them motivated.

The evidence shows that going from nothing to just 15 minutes of moderate exercise per day can have major health benefits. So a little something is better than nothing and we need to be innovative in nudging those who are doing nothing at all in that direction.

The AWRC will set up a partnership of companies that already create the products we need and couple them with the Government’s desire to help people move more.  

We want to target everyone, from those who are completely sedentary to those who are most active; from young to old; from those in the most deprived communities to those in the most affluent; from those at home to those in work or in education.

Since outlining our vision for the AWRC a year ago things are moving quickly. At the last Budget the Government announced a £14m grant to build the AWRC at the Olympic Legacy Park in Sheffield, a development that will also include a multi-purpose 3,000 seat indoor community sports and events arena, Sheffield’s second University Technical College and a new school.

And we already have our first partner in Toshiba who are supporting us with £1.5 m of equipment and research support. The next year or so will see us slowly grow the number of partners so that by the time we open our doors in late 2017, we will hit the ground running.  

The siting of the AWRC at the Olympic Legacy Park is no coincidence as most of the research expertise will come from research teams that helped Team GB during London 2012.

In 10 years’ time people will look back and see an AWRC that has not only helped people become healthier, but has also provided high value jobs in an innovation district dedicated to wellbeing. For me, that would be the perfect legacy.

Professor Steve Haake is Director of the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University.