Russ Jago, Professor of Paediatric Physical Activity & Public Health, reports some surprising findings from research conducted at the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition, and Health.
Adolescent girls who attend after-school dance classes are no more likely to be physically active than those who don’t. This is one of the key findings from Active 7, a research project that aims to find out whether after-school dance sessions can help adolescent girls to engage in moderate levels of exercise.
Physical activity is associated with improved physical and mental health, but many adolescents – and particularly adolescent girls – do not engage in recommended levels of physical activity. A team, led by staff in the Centre for Exercise, Health and Nutrition at the School for Policy Studies aimed to address this issue by examining whether providing dance programmes at secondary schools led to increases in girls’ physical activity. The study took place in 18 secondary schools. In half of the schools, Year 7 girls were provided with a new after-school dance programme for 20 weeks. Girls in the other “control” schools carried on as normal.
The results were surprising. Much academic research suggests dance is an appealing form of physical activity amongst teenage girls, that extra-curricular periods are better suited to delivering physical activity interventions, and that interventions based on psychological theory (as Active7 was) have more success than non-theory based interventions. However, we found no difference between the physical activity levels of the intervention and control group girls at the end of the programme, or 6-months later. We also found that only a third of girls attended at least two thirds of the sessions provided in their school.
Our earlier work had suggested that girls enjoy dance and as such the lack of a difference in the physical activity levels of the girls was surprising. This could be due to the intensity of the dance sessions. The goal of the project was to increase ‘moderate to vigorous physical activity’ (MVPA), which gets you sweaty and slightly out of breath. The results found that girls who attended Active7 only took part in 4.7 more minutes of MVPA on session days, and therefore the sessions may not have been intensive enough to impact on MVPA. Only one-third of the girls met the attendance criteria of attending two-thirds of the sessions, suggesting there may be a need to consider alternative forms of physical activity. A final and third explanation is methodological; accelerometers may not be able to capture the nuanced movements inherent in dance, especially when preparing for performances. Thus, levels of MVPA in sessions may have been underrepresented.
The results have implications for how we think about delivering after-school physical activity interventions. We might need to move beyond delivering standardised forms of extra-curricular physical activity and instead find more novel forms of exercise that offer lots of different types of physical activity. Fortunately, the findings from Active7 provide us with new ways of thinking about designing interventions. Offering participants with sufficient ‘choice’ in the design of the intervention is one potential method uncovered in our analysis, whilst delivering tailored interventions that meet a diversity of schools was also suggested as a future recommendation from girls and school contacts. Thus, future research which examines how to engage girls in activity and focusses on the types of activities that they would like to attend, when they would like to attend and how to maximise physical activity during those sessions, is needed.
The project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research (NIHR PHR) Programme (project number 11/3050/01). The views and opinions expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR PHR Programme or the Department of Health.
This blog post is based on Jago et al 2015: Effect and cost of an after-school dance programme on the physical activity of Year 7 girls: The Bristol Girls Dance Project, a school-based cluster randomised controlled trial, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity, 12:128, 2015