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The application of health psychology to public health

Bunten, A. (2017). The application of health psychology to public health. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


Background: There is strong evidence linking obesity to health issues and long term conditions such as high blood pressure, type II diabetes, heart disease and some cancers (NICE, 2006). Despite this growing evidence base, the prevalence of obesity continues to rise and rates have more than doubled in England in the last 25 years (Public Health England, 2014). Currently 26% of adults are obese (Health Survey for England, 2014), and the proportion of women that are classified as overweight and obese has risen to 57% (Health Survey for England, 2014). Weight loss can reduce the risk of an individual developing these conditions and can increase their healthy life expectancy. It is estimated that approximately one in every two adults in England are actively trying to lose weight, the majority of which are over-weight or obese women (Piernas, Aveyard and Jebb, 2016). This indicates that over-weight and obese women are motivated to lose weight but are struggling to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. To-date potentially effective weight management interventions have been identified as long term multi-component interventions including diet and exercise components along with behavioural strategies. However, weight changes have been small and weight regain has been found to be very common (Loveman, Frampton, Shepherd, Picot, Cooper et al, 2011; Dombrowski, Knittle, Avenell, Araújo-Soare & Sniehotta, 2014). Despite the primary focus on weight loss being to improve health, research suggest that people’s prime motivation to lose weight is unrelated to health (Piernas, Aveyard and Jebb, 2016).

Aim: This study aims to improve the understanding of the challenge of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight in overweight and obese young women. In particular, it aims to i) better understand the barriers and facilitators to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight as experienced by these young women, ii) further understand the relationships and influences of these factors, to iii) inform and develop a new theoretical framework in which to capture this social phenomena and societal challenge.

Recruitment: This study recruited 14 female participants aged 18- 35 years, with a BMI over 30 (or 28 with co-morbidity), actively seeking support to lose weight. Participants were recruited through purposive sampling in two primary care practices in East London as part of the ‘Peer Support Weight Action Programme’ (SWAP). This was a Randomised Controlled Trial run by Barts Health NHS Trust and Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, Health Technology Assessment fund. Design: The research is qualitative in design utilising in-depth semi-structured interviews. Interviews took place with women recruited to take part in a weight loss programme before commencing the intervention, and follow up interviews took place approximately six months after completion of the weight management programme. Grounded Theory Analysis was used to analyse the data. Results and Findings: An overarching theoretical framework is presented from the findings of the data analysis of the pre and post weight loss attempt interviews. A new ‘Emotion and Mindset’ model is presented to explain the challenge of achieving and maintaining a healthier weight in young women. It includes the core categories of sense of self, emotion and mindset, self-efficacy, and stress and conflicting priorities and has been theoretically framed around the concept of Finding the Health Enhancing Equilibrium - maintaining a positive sense of self whilst generating action to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. It describes the balancing act required between these key contributing elements to engage in positive health behaviour which contributes to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

Recommendations: Based on the findings from this study, and supported by previous findings (Cochrane, 2008), weight management interventions targeting young women need to build in coping strategies to support individuals cognitively, behaviourally and emotionally. These should include building self-efficacy (NOO, 2011; Ashford, Edmunds, French, 2010), sense of self and re-aligning identity (West & Brown, 2013). Individuals need to be taught how to identify, address and re-orient dysfunctional thoughts, to identify potential stressors such as triggers and environmental cues to prevent relapse. Consideration needs to be given to weight loss maintenance and ongoing tailored support. Further research is needed to identify what type and method of support is most effective and for whom.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Departments: Doctoral Theses
Doctoral Theses > School of Arts and Social Sciences Doctoral Theses
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
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