What’s causing the obesity epidemic in young people? Gráinne Hayes

Let me set the scene, it is 8.30am on Monday the 31st of August. I am sitting at my desk discussing all of the weekend’s adventures with my buddy Rachel Sheehan, I swing on my swivel chair mid-conversation and suddenly a yellow post-it catches my eye “PESS Blog due Monday 31st August”. My reaction is one of sheer PANIC, what am I going to write about? What time is this due? Why do I always leave things until the last minute?

So here it goes…..

For the past year I have been involved in a HRI funded project entitled “What’s causing the obesity epidemic in young people? Understanding the relationship between behavioural determinants, health behaviours and obesity risk during adolescence”

Context: Levels of overweight and obesity in young people have risen dramatically in recent years, with a quarter of 13 year olds in Ireland currently estimated to be overweight or obese. We still don’t really know why the components of modern lifestyle have led to such a rapid population-wide increase in body mass, particularly in young people (rates of obesity have increased 8 fold in males and 2 fold in females since 1990). Previous studies have focused on recollection based self-report data, but this study funded by UL’s Health Research Institute is the first study in Ireland to include both male and female adolescents which simultaneously and objectively measures blood profiles, dietary information, physical activity and sedentary behaviour in an effort to understand how these behaviours impact adolescent health.

Experience: Being involved in this project was a daunting experience at first. I remember feeling quiet overwhelmed in our first meeting after being placed with the responsibility to manage and oversee this project to completion. Upon reflection I feel very privileged that I had the opportunity to work within a multidisciplinary research team to design and implement a large, observational study that will now help characterise the health behaviours and identify their determinants that lead to health issues including overweight/obesity in young Irish people.

I have gained a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the techniques required to design, run and process data from a large cross-sectional study. Throughout this project I worked closely with Physical Education teachers to recruit both schools and students using strict sampling procedures. I co-ordinated over 300 participants for testing days in each of the schools and UL which involved; fitting each participant with a device to measure their activity behaviours, organising transport and food for when they visited UL and making sure that the participants had each of their health measures taken (bloods, height, weight, grip-strength, 20 meter shuttle test, 2 day food diary, blood pressure). This would not have been possible without the guidance and organisation skills that I have acquired from Dr. Kieran Dowd over the past few years and also without the help of both Sport and Exercise Science and Food Science final year students who were trained to help in the collection of the data. Upon completion of the study I am now responsible for mining the large volumes of data and I have just finished providing feedback to each participant. It goes without saying, the complimentary skills and expertise of the group members afforded me the opportunity to implement the testing protocols to the highest standard and to collaborate with leading researchers across a variety of research fields for example, in objective measurement of diet (Dr. Eibhlis O’ Connor), physical activity and sedentary behaviour (Prof. Alan Donnelly, Dr. Brian Carson), experience in recruiting volunteer populations through schools (Profs Alan Donnelly and Clodagh O’Gorman, Dr. Ciaran Mac Donncha), collecting, processing and analysing blood samples for circulating biomarkers of health influenced by lifestyle behaviours from populations including adolescents (Dr. Brian Carson, Prof Alan Donnelly, Dr. Matthew Herring, Ms Elaine Conway, Dr. Mary Clarke Moloney), in measuring determinants for physical activity and health (Dr. Ciaran MacDonncha, Dr. Matthew Herring) and substantial experience of database creation and database analysis (Prof. Ailish Hannigan, Dr. Helen Purtill).

As I face into the final year of my PhD, I feel that the skills I have acquired due to being involved in this project is something that I will be forever grateful for. I am also proud of the impact that the results of the study will provide. The data will provide critical information that will help to identify “at risk” individuals, and will guide the design of interventions to improve health and reduce obesity levels and associated chronic disease development in this young population.

Gráinne Hayes is a PhD student in the PESS department. Gráinne can be contacted on email at Grainne.Hayes@ul.ie

View Gráinne’s profile here or on twitter @GrainneHayes89

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