Success for Behaviour Change Approach in tackling mental health

Thu 18 March, 2021
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An academic from the University of Bedfordshire has discussed the positive results of an ongoing psychologically-informed Hertfordshire activity service, in a recent instalment of the BBC’s Truth About series.

Angel Chater, Professor in Health Psychology & Behaviour Change, was interviewed by the BBC about her involvement in a long-term, community-based programme called ‘Active Herts’ and the more recently developed ‘Active Watford & Three Rivers’ service. These programmes – which are open to the public and on referral by a health professional – incorporate behaviour change approaches to get people more active and, in the process, overcome or manage mental health struggles.

Produced by BBC Science, The Truth About is a regular health, wellbeing and nutritional science series aired across primetime television. The January 2021 instalment was a special mental health episode presented by clinical psychologist, Professor Tanya Byron. She interviewed Professor Chater about how her research with ISPAR – the Institute for Sports & Physical Activity Research – has helped develop methods used by exercise professionals involved in the Active Herts programme.

Prof Angel Chater on BBC

Since 2015, Professor Chater has been training registered exercise professionals for Active Herts, known as ‘Get Active Specialists’, to use behaviour change models such as ‘COM-B’ in their practice with individuals at risk of cardiovascular disease or those who have mental health concerns. The COM-B model is a behavioural psychology method that assesses people’s ‘Capability’ (what they know and what they are psychologically and physically able to do), ‘Opportunity’ (how their physical and social environments might influence what they do) and ‘Motivation’ (their attitudes, beliefs, emotions and habits). These three areas make up the COM-B system at the hub of the Behaviour Change Wheel, a concept developed by academics and colleagues of Professor Chater from University College London.

Based at the University’s School of Sports Science & Physical Activity, Professor Chater became involved in the Active Herts project programme after being approached by the physical activity lead at Hertfordshire County Council (HCC), who had seen her present a behaviour change training workshop to the local Director of Public Health. HCC had recently received funding from Sport England to develop the Active Herts programme, and they asked Professor Chater and her team – which at the time included her PhD student, Dr Neil Howlett, from the University of Hertfordshire – if they would help to develop the programme and train the exercise professionals who would be delivering the service, based on the Professor’s research and expertise in behaviour change.

Discussing why her expertise is valuable to projects like this, Professor Chater said:

“It’s long been known that physical activity can benefit mental health. People with long-term conditions often experience mental health concerns and exercise referral programmes can help. However, engaging in exercise and maintaining engagement over time can often be challenging for people and exercise professionals are not routinely trained in behaviour change or how to help people overcome challenges related to their Capability, Opportunity and Motivation. Our training can help with this.”

Active HertsThe team at Active Herts has reported positive results when using the COM-B method alongside motivational interviewing and health coaching, with many of their clients experiencing long-lasting improvement on both their physical activity and mental health. Participants have been able to overcome their exercise barriers to combat low mood, anxiety and depression.

In an external process evaluation of the programme by the University of East Anglia, the training that Professor Chater provided to the exercise professionals was seen as one of the main assets to the success of the programme. These findings highlight the importance of upskilling those working with clients on a one-to-one basis in behaviour change approaches.

In her BBC Science interview, Professor Tanya Byron said of COM-B: “What I like about this method is that it helps people take practical steps to achieving their goals.”

Active Herts exercise specialist, Alison Goodchild, who uses the COM-B method in her consultations, added: “It’s about making it so that it’s achievable.”

Professor Chater and the University of Bedfordshire will continue to support the delivery of Active Herts and other legacy programmes, such as Active Watford and Three Rivers, with regular ‘supervision’ sessions to support the use of the behaviour change approach. It is hoped that other regions will follow suit with similar programmes and the Local Government Association has published details of how to develop this type of treatment locally, as a case study of best practice. Read it here: https://local.gov.uk/active-herts  

Part-funded by Sport England with the support of key partners including the University of Bedfordshire, Active Herts and Active Watford and Three Rivers are community-based physical activity programmes aimed at helping inactive adults take their first step towards a more active lifestyle and improve their mental health through a novel behaviour change approach. For more information about Active Herts or to get involved, visit: www.activeherts.org.uk

The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health can be watched via BBC iPlayer.

Further information about the University’s sport and physical activity research can be found online: www.beds.ac.uk/ispar

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