Research, evaluation and monitoring are key elements of Healthy Ireland implementation. The National Physical Activity Plan Implementation Group (NPAP IG) has a Research Sub-Group that has been involved in oversight of NPAP related research, including compilation of Irish data for the WHO 2018 Country FactSheets on Physical Activity and the WHO Health Enhancing Physical Activity Policy Action Tool (HEPA PAT) for Ireland. Research and EU engagement are also key elements of implementation of the Obesity Policy and Action Plan.
The Irish Physical Activity Research Collaboration (iPARC), an HRB funded, all-island initiative led by researchers at the University of Limerick and the Department of Health and also including representation from the Departments of Education and Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, the HSE and Sport Ireland, the HSC in Northern Ireland and researchers at Ulster University, Waterford Institute of Technology, University College, Dublin and a panel of international experts drawn from the UK, Netherlands and Australia.
At the January 2021 iPARC conference, University of Limerick researchers presented the findings of a study which found that COVID-19 restrictions were both a barrier to, and an opportunity for, physical activity in teenagers. 50% of adolescents surveyed reported engaging in less physical activity following the introduction of necessary Covid-19 restrictions; 30% reported no change in activity levels, while 20% reported more engagement. The research concluded that parents, schools, public health, communities and industries must collaborate to prevent physical inactivity at times of crisis, especially for vulnerable groups.
Further international research was also presented at the conference in the context of the pandemic, highlighting the positive effects of regular physical activity on immune function and vaccine responses, and on reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Bearing in mind the diverse positive health impacts of physical activity, Healthy Ireland initiatives have continued to take place where possible and have been adapted in line with the necessary restrictions in place at any given point in time. Healthy eating and physical activity continue to be promoted as key elements of the current Keep Well campaign, which promotes population resilience during this challenging winter period. Links to online resources for healthy eating and physical activity for families, children and adolescents are available through various websites, including Healthy Ireland, Sport Ireland and at local level, Local Sports Partnerships.
The START communications campaign was launched in 2017 in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. The campaign aims to help families take that first step and then continue ongoing steps towards a healthier lifestyle for their children. Post-campaign evaluation (2017, 2018 and 2019) includes data on consumption of various food groups during the weekdays and on weekends. The evaluation data from 2020 will be available in February 2021, which will add to the data on eating behaviours of children during the COVID 19 pandemic.
Healthy Ireland co-sponsors the Active School Flag (ASF) programme, which is led by the Department of Education. When schools were closed in March 2020, Active School Week 2020 was converted to Active Home Week, with extensive resources for use by parents at home, and was very well received. The Active School Flag Programme incorporates research and evaluation; a recent article published by a DCU research team has identified positive effects of the ASF programme on physical activity participation, behaviour and attendance in DEIS schools holding a Flag and participating in the research. Research and evaluation is also built in to the development of the ASF Post Primary pilot programme, working with researchers at the University of Limerick.
The Healthy Ireland Demonstration Project (HIDP), led by the HSE Clinical Lead for Obesity and researchers at the University of Limerick, is examining physical activity and healthy eating in the context of post-primary schools. School closures have had significant impacts on the research programme, however, students from 7 post primary schools are being tracked as part of ASF and HIDP efforts to measure the impact of COVID-19 on health behaviours in adolescents.
Ireland is a participant in the Big O European study on childhood obesity, which continued to recruit participants and to collect data throughout 2020. A study is underway to explore changes in activity and eating behaviour between 2018/2019 and 2020.
Healthy Ireland supports and participates in oversight of a number of Surveys. The Healthy Ireland Survey takes a representative sample of people aged 15 and over, resident in Ireland; Wave 7 is currently in the field and includes questions relevant to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sport Ireland have been tracking engagement in sport and physical activity in those aged 16 and over since the start of the pandemic; the results of this research are published on their website: www.sportireland.ie
The National COVID-19 Food Study, carried out by University College Dublin and Dublin City University was an online survey of adults, but many of those completing the questionnaire were parents of young children, and some reported difficulties feeding their families due to financial strain and the absence of school meals during school closures. In recognition of these difficulties, funding for the School Meals Scheme, which already prioritised DEIS schools, was maintained during the school closures and also through the summer of 2020. An ESRI Report found that over 95% of DEIS schools continued to participate in the scheme, which is also being maintained during the current school closures.