Why do so many parents normalise overweight in their teenaged children?

Guest Blog: Dr Wendy Wills, Centre for Research in Primary and Community Care

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, has asked why so many people do not view their weight as problematic, despite the high rates of overweight and obesity in this country.

She says children are being put at risk through this so-called normalisation process. Together with my co-author Professor Julia Lawton (University of Edinburgh), I recently published findings that suggest some of the reasons why weight is quite often the elephant in the room where parents and their teenaged children are concerned.

Our study (Attitudes to weight and weight management in the early teenage years: a qualitative study of parental perceptions and views) showed that many parents, particularly mothers, have their own stories to tell about their weight and how they have managed their weight throughout their lives.  Weight management, for many parents, was viewed as an irritating and unsuccessful necessity of everyday life.

Image courtesy of donkeyrock via Freeimages.com

Image courtesy of donkeyrock via Freeimages.com

These findings provide useful context for understanding parents’ views about their children’s weight and their attitudes towards managing it.  Some parents found it difficult to consider their child as overweight or ‘too big’, and therefore deemed their weight as being ‘acceptable’.

Others voiced concerns and some wanted to take action but these concerns were blurred by the physiological changes related to their teenagers’ puberty – how much weight gain is normal during this period of the life course?

Many parents discussed their teenage weight management strategies with us – these were often complex and multi-pronged and kept the ‘teenage’ context in mind in terms of physiological, emotional and social changes associated with this stage of life.

Parents might change the food and drinks they bought, for example, to keep higher fat/sugar foods and drinks under control at home – but some felt that teenagers were their own ‘worst enemies’ as they could buy their own food and drink with friends and were not limited to that provided by

 Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Some parents gave their children direct advice about weight management but were wary about this approach, given their own negative experiences of controlling weight.  Avoiding causing their teenager to develop an eating disorder was also a priority as parents felt young people can become too focused on their body shape, which was viewed as detrimental to wellbeing during the teenage years.

Being responsible for teenaged children and their weight is not easy.

We found in our research that socio-economic status was not linked with parents’ views – normalisation of bodies happened across the social spectrum.  One of the reasons for this could be that we all use our own terms of reference to decide what’s normal, rather than terms set by experts and health professionals.  If our family, friends and neighbours look similar to us then we consider ourselves to ‘fit in’ with our social group – and this might affect those with a higher, as well as lower socio-economic status.  In addition, parents want to be considered as good parents – parents might have to redefine themselves as a ‘bad’ or failing parent if they accept their child is unacceptably large or voice concerns about this.  It’s much better to view a child’s body size as normal as it indicates parenting success –  at maintaining their weight in a seen-to-be healthy range.

We don’t have all the answers in terms of addressing the obesity problem in teenagers but our findings show that the context in which people look after older children is incredibly complex and fraught with anxieties. Trying to take account of these anxieties and concerns, and helping parents to provide a healthy home, rather than focusing on children’s weight, might go some way to understanding why overweight has started to become normalised in the UK.

The study discussed here involved individual in-depth interviews with 72 young people and their parents. Half of the young people aged 13-15 years were overweight or obese. Half of those interviewed were of low socio-economic status.


Wills, W. J. and Lawton, J. (2014) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/hex.12182/

Bold Hearts in the final of the RoboCup German Open

Bold Hearts preparing for thier frst match in the RoboCup German Open 2014

Bold Hearts preparing for their first match in the RoboCup German Open 2014

The robot football season is upon us – and Bold Hearts, the University of Hertfordshire’s Humanoid Kid-sized robot team, was back in action in the first of this year’s major competitions, the RoboCup German Open – which took place at the end of last week in Magdeburg, Germany.

During the RoboCup competition, students pit their team of robots against each other – demonstrating their robotic football talent .  The robots are not under remote control – they act autonomously, and coordinate their actions via wifi to work together as a team – they need to know who to pass to, how to get past a defender and, most importantly, how to score a goal!   Teams use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence with the aim that by 2050 a team of robots will be able to take and beat the best human players – to be the world champions!

Read about RoboCup in the Metro and see some great photos of Bold Hearts in the Daily Mail

Own goals?

Bold Hearts started with a 4-2 win against WFWolves – and, just like last year, Bold Hearts actually scored all the goals!  So great news – Bold hearts can definitely score – but goal awareness (is it the home goal or the opponent’s goal??) maybe needs a little work!

Bold Hearts scoring their elegant goal against the FUmanoids in the first round, where our player outruns two FUmanoids robots and outwits their goalie, to shoot and score!.

Bold Hearts scoring their elegant goal against the FUmanoids in the first round. The Bold Hearts robot outruns two FUmanoids robots and outwits their goalie to shoot and score!

The next game was against one of the strongest opponents – FUmanoids from Berlin.  It was a tough match.  Bold Hearts made some last minute changes to the team – introducing better team-awareness.  However, it wasn’t quite good enough to be the winner of this match – and so Bold Hearts lost 1 – 3.  Although Bold Hearts scored a beautifully elegant attack goal – very Lionel Messi!

With two matches under their belts, the Bold Hearts robots were beginning to improve their situation awareness – their players suddenly turned from attacking their own goal to becoming a defender of their goal, once they had understood that they were attacking their own goal.  However, it wasn’t enough to win against such a strong team as FUmanoids.

Penalty shoot-out and sudden death

Bold Hearts made it through to the semi-finals – to play Bit-Bots from Hamburg.  Bold Hearts scored in the first half, and Bit-Bots scored in the second half.  And with no further goals in extra time, the match went to a penalty shoot-out!

Some penalties Bold Hearts missed, some Bit-Bots missed.  For every goal that Bold hearts scored, Bit-Bots got one back….until it went to sudden death – and on the very last kick, Bit-Bots missed and Bold Hearts scored…..so Bold Hearts made it through to the final of the RoboCup German Open!

The final of the RoboCup German Open

Saturday 5 April – finals day of the RoboCup German Open – Bold Hearts were to meet…..FUmanoids from Berlin again!

FUmanoids scored a good goal early on, but Bold Hearts did not give up – scoring a great equaliser.  Then with a completely undefended FUmanoids’ goal, two Bold Hearts’ players managed to miss the open goal!!!!  This was because the robots had become more careful and therefore slower as they were trying to avoid scoring own goals.  The FUmanoids counterattacked and then in the very last few seconds of the second half, they scored a goal – a lucky one for them!

It was a worthy final – and the Bold Hearts team is delighted to be runners up in the RoboCup German Open!

Now robots are packed to travel safely to the next round of RoboCup – the Iran Open!

Many congratulations to the Bold Hearts Team – Sander van Dijk, Drew Noakes, , Daniel Barry, and Daniel Polani (Head of the UH RoboCup project).

Follow Bold Hearts on FaceBook

Hertfordshire professor at the prestigious Maudsley Debate

Professor Keith Laws

Professor Keith Laws

Has Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for psychosis had its day?  Have its benefits been overstated? 

Has CBT for psychosis been oversold?” is the subject of the next Maudsley Debate taking place today (Wednesday 2 April 2014) with Keith Laws, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire, debating for the motion.

The debate will be chaired by Professor Sir Robin Murray in front of a large public audience – with the presentations also being published in the British Medical Journal.1404 CBT-for-Psychosis-Final-Poster399x282

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a recognised treatment for people with psychosis and is recommended as a treatment of choice by health organisations around the world for people with psychosis and schizophrenia.

However, the most extensive study ever undertaken into the effect of CBT on the symptoms of the disorder, published in January this year, found little evidence of efficacy.  The international team of researchers, led by Professor Laws performed a new meta-analysis examining CBT in fifty clinical trials involving 3,000 individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia.

This new research raises questions about whether CBT should continue to be recommended in clinical practice. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) currently recommends CBT as a treatment to be offered to ‘all patients with schizophrenia’ in England and Wales. Professor Laws and colleagues think this recommendation should be reconsidered – and this is the subject of the forthcoming Maudsley Debate.

The Maudsley Debates focus on issues that have a direct impact on mental health services, service users and mental health professionals.  They are held three times a year at the Institute of Psychiatry, based at King’s College London.  Previous speakers include Germaine Greer, Lord David Owen, mental health tsar Louis Appleby, journalist Ben Goldacre, Baroness Mary Warnock and many more besides.

Read Professor Laws’ review of why the evidence of CBT as a treatment for schizophrenia is not as strong as some thought at the Guardian online today.

Tonight’s Maudsley Debate will be available as a podcast after the event – so listen in and make your mind up!

So what do you think?  Should CBT remain the treatment of choice for schizophrenia and psychosis? Or have its benefits been oversold?

Social networking and silver surfers

Guest blog by Dr Jyoti Choudrie, Systems Management Research Unit, Hertfordshire Business School
Dr Jyoti Choudrie

Dr Jyoti Choudrie

Ever wondered how many older people regularly use Online Social Networks(OSN) such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter?  Do they use them as much as younger people? Together with my colleague Dr Amit Vyas, we set out to find out the answers to these questions – and were surprised by the results.


With such rapid advances in internet technologies and the widening easy access to fast and reliable broadband, OSNs are an increasingly important for technology adoption.  And in addition, digital technologies can facilitate daily tasks, such that older adults may remain living at home independently for longer – information can be obtained and implemented so that their quality of life can be increased.

We used a random sample population of residents from the Hertfordshire area to identify and understand the adoption, use and diffusion of OSNs in the UK’s older population.

 © Creatista | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Creatista | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

For the purposes of this study, ‘older’ individuals are defined as being internet users of 50 years old or above, and often referred to as ‘silver surfers’.

Our research found that in terms of use, 46.8% of the 519 adopters of OSNs used their OSNs on a weekly basis; 37.6% on a monthly basis and less than 1.6% on a daily basis for more than two hours.

The most popular activities OSNs were being used for were adding people they knew as contacts (86%), commenting on pictures (57%), sending messages (60%), viewing photos (55%), and obtaining events and media information (41%).

In terms of OSN applications for e-government, participants were found to use OSNs for central (14.6%) and local (1.2%) government interaction and communication.

The team found that that Facebook was the OSN used the most at 66 %, followed by Twitter (47%); LinkedIn (41%); Branch Out (10.4%) and Google+ (7.3 per cent).

76% of OSN users posted a picture of themselves, with 21% not having a photograph.  Privacy concerns were also very important when an older adult was considering accepting the use of an OSN in daily life. An interesting finding is that older adults using OSNs are known within friends, family, and peers as having a greater social status and are ‘revered’ and viewed to be most popular within friends and family.

Our research showed that OSNs are being accepted and used by a group of society that is perceived as not accepting this technology.  Older adults are well informed on privacy issues and those who use OSNs are viewed to be really ‘up there’ within their social group.

This research is vital for companies such as telephone and mobile companies in identifying the reasons for using or not using new OSN technologies.  And for policymakers, this research shows that older adults are aware of many of the issues as younger people.

The full article is available at the  British Computer Society or BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT)

Want to change, but finding it difficult to get started?

Photo caption left to right: Professor Ben Fletcher, Do Something Different and University of Hertfordshire David Andrews, deputy cabinet member for public health and localism, Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) Jim McManus, director of public health, HCC  Sue Beck, health improvement principle, HCC  Ronel Erasmus, Do Something Different

Photo caption left to right:
Professor Ben Fletcher, Do Something Different and University of Hertfordshire
David Andrews, deputy cabinet member for public health and localism, Hertfordshire County Council (HCC)
Jim McManus, director of public health, HCC
Sue Beck, health improvement principle, HCC
Ronel Erasmus, Do Something Different

Do you want to be healthier, happier and less stressed? It is unlikely that anyone would say no, but it isn’t easy to change our lifestyle or habits in order to achieve these goals, however much we want them. It takes something special to get us out of a rut.

So, why not try one of the three online programmes designed to help bring about a positive change to your life?  As a resident of Hertfordshire, you can sign up for one, free of charge.

Hertfordshire County Council’s public health department, working in partnership with Do Something Different, has commissioned three online programmes under the ‘Do Something Different’ banner: Do Healthy in Herts, Do Happiness in Herts, and Do Less Stress in Herts. Try the one closest to your personal goals.

David Andrews, deputy cabinet member for public health and localism said: “Each programme offers you six weeks during which you will be encouraged to break away from the habits that keep you doing the same things and explore approaches that can lead to a healthier, happier or less stressful way of life. Places are limited so act now if you would like to try a new approach to changing your life.”

The programmes are the brainchild of Professors Ben Fletcher and Karen Pine from the University of Hertfordshire. Professor Karen Pine, one of the founding psychologists behind Do Something Different, says: “It’s easy to talk about changing things in your life, but most of us find it incredibly difficult. These programmes are all about doing. Each ‘do’ will encourage you to change an old habit or try a new way of doing something. That will help you to bring more happiness into your life, to feel less stressed or to adopt a healthier lifestyle, one ‘do’ at a time. It’s designed to be easy and fun to do, and we see great results.”

To get started, if you are over 18 and a resident of Hertfordshire, visit the website:  www.hertsdirect.org/dosomething and complete the quick, online questionnaire that captures your personal habits and behaviours. You will then receive a series of personalised do’s or fun, positive actions sent by text message and/or email, that will help transform your life with a series of small steps over the next six weeks. Each step is chosen especially for you and designed to push you outside your personal comfort zone into trying new ways of doing things. At the end of the programme you can complete the online questionnaire again to see what has changed.

Self-acceptance could be the key to a happier life, yet it’s the happy habit many people practise the least

Professor Karen J Pine

Professor Karen J Pine

Happiness is more than just a feeling; it is something we can all practise on a daily basis. But people are better at some ‘happy habits’ than others. In fact, the one habit that corresponds most closely with us being satisfied with our lives overall – self-acceptance – is often the one we practise least.

5,000 people surveyed by the charity Action for Happiness, in collaboration with Do Something Different, rated themselves between 1 and 10 on ten habits identified from the latest scientific research as being key to happiness.

Giving was the top habit revealed by those who took the survey. When asked about Giving (How often do you make an effort to help or be kind to others?) people scored an average of 7.41 out of 10, with one in six (17%) topping 10 out of 10. Just over one in three (36%) people scored 8 or 9; slightly fewer (32%) scored 6 or 7; and less than one in six (15%) rated themselves at 5 or less.

The Relating habit came a close second. The question How often do you put effort into the relationships that matter most to you? produced an average score of 7.36 out of 10. And 15% of people scored the maximum 10 out of 10.

The survey also revealed which habits are most closely related to people’s overall satisfaction with life. All 10 habits were found to be strongly linked to life satisfaction, with Acceptance found to be the habit that predicts it most strongly. Yet Acceptance was also revealed as the habit that people tend to practise the least, generating the lowest average score from the 5,000 respondents.

When answering the Acceptance question, How often are you kind to yourself and think you’re fine as you are? people’s average rating was just 5.56 out of 10. Only 5% of people put themselves at a 10 on the Acceptance habit. Around one in five people (19%) scored an 8 or 9; Less than a third (30%) scored a 6 or 7; and almost half (46%) of people rated themselves at 5 or less.

Treating our bodies to regular physical activity is another proven happy habit. Yet the survey revealed that this is another habit that often gets overlooked. The average answer to How often do you spend at least half an hour a day being active? was just 5.88 out of 10, with 45% of people rating themselves 5 or less.

Professor Karen Pine, a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire and co-founder of Do Something Different, said: “Practising these habits really can boost our happiness. It’s great to see so many people regularly doing things to help others – and when we make others happy we tend to feel good ourselves too. This survey shows that practising self-acceptance is one thing that could make the biggest difference to many people’s happiness. Exercise is also known to lift mood so if people want a simple, daily way to fee happier they should get into the habit of being more physically active too”.

To support participants who want to boost their happy habits, Do Something Different and Action for Happiness have also created a new Do Happiness programme, which sends people regular small positive actions (Do’s) to help them practice the habits that science shows tend to make people happy.

How can we practise the self-acceptance habit?

Here are three positive actions that people can take to increase their levels of self-acceptance:

  • Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small
  • Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you
  • Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you’re feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are.

Where did the happy habits come from?

The happy habits included in the survey are based on the Ten Keys to Happier Living framework, developed by Action for Happiness based on an extensive review of the latest research about what really affects mental wellbeing. Together the Ten Keys spell the acronym GREAT DREAM, as follows:

  • Giving: do things for others
  • Relating: connect with people
  • Exercising: take care of your body
  • Appreciating: notice the world around
  • Trying out: keep learning new things


  • Direction: have goals to look forward to
  • Resilience: find ways to bounce back
  • Emotion: take a positive approach
  • Acceptance: be comfortable with who you are
  • Meaning: be part of something bigger

Habitable planet discovery in the APS Top 10 of 2013

Each year the American Physical Society (APS) looks back at the headlines from all around the world to see which physics stories grabbed the most attention. And guess what – one of the stories from our own University of Hertfordshire astrophysicists made it into the APS top 10 Physics Newsmakers of 2013!

Artist's impression of the Gliese 667C system Credit:ESO/M. Kornmesser

Artist’s impression of the Gliese 667C system
Credit:ESO/M. Kornmesser

In June 2013, an international team of astronomers led by Mikko Tuomi, from the University’s Centre for Astrophysics Research (CAR) and Guillem Anglada-Escude, University of Goettingen, Germany, found a nearby star which has a record-breaking three super-Earths lying in the habitable zone where liquid water could exist!

New observations of the star, known as Gliese 667C, were combined with existing data to reveal a system with at least six planets. Three of these planets were confirmed to be super-Earths — planets more massive than Earth, but less massive than planets like Uranus or Neptune.

And even more exciting, these three super-Earths were found to be within their star’s habitable zone – a thin shell around a star in which water may be present in liquid form if conditions are right and making them possible candidates to support life.

This was the first time that three such planets had been spotted orbiting in this zone in the same star system!

As Mikko said: “Finding three low-mass planets in the star’s habitable zone is very exciting!”

And so does the APS!!

Asteroid hurtles past Earth

Guest blog by Dr Mark Gallaway, Bayfordbury Observatory

For those of you who may have been alarmed to see the fiery image of the “potentially hazardous” asteroid, known as 2000 EM26, on The Guardian website, you will be pleased to hear that this 270 metre-wide rock passed safely by beyond the orbit of the moon today – just as predicted by astronomers.

Asteroid 2000 EM26 orbit diagram. Image from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of NASA/JPL

Asteroid 2000 EM26 orbit diagram. Image from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of NASA/JPL

Although 2000 EM26 is a much larger asteroid than two of our more recent asteroid encounters, it does not pose any hazard to the Earth.  Almost exactly a year ago, we tracked asteroid 2012DA14 from our observatory as it made a very close pass to the Earth in February 2013.  And, during that same week, a much smaller object unexpectedly entered the atmosphere over Russia causing a window-breaking sonic boom before breaking up.

At the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory, we keep an eye on these large rocks as part of an on-going programme to monitor ‘Near Earth Objects’ (NEO).

Filming suranga tunnel systems in India

Guest blog: Dr Darren Crook, School of Life and Medical Sciences
Abu Jaffer-Ullah and Adam Jones-LLoyd from the University of Hertfordshire’s Digital Media team filming in India

Abu Jaffer-Ullah and Adam Jones-LLoyd from the University of Hertfordshire’s Digital Media team in action filming in India

Over the last few weeks, myself and my fellow researcher Sudhir Tripathi, have been tracked across India by a film crew – Abu Jaffer-Ullah and Adam Jones-LLoyd from the University’s Digital Media team.

We are putting together an hour long documentary on our research into suranga tunnel systems which are found mainly in the foothills of the Western Ghats of India in southern Karnataka and northern Kerala. These suranga are used by local farmers for both irrigation and drinking water.

Our filming activity was closely followed with great interest by an Indian water journalist, Shree 1402 suranga indian newspaper 1Padre – who also collaborated with me in giving a talk to the Alike School run by the Sri Sathya Sai Loka Seva Trust which contains some of southern India’s brightest students.

It was good to work with Shree Padre as he was able to translate our story into some of the local languages, like Kannada, which meant that our story was told in a number of local newspapers on the 16th and 17th January.

1402 suranga snake1402 suranga batFurther collaborations with Dr Suthakar Isaac of St. Johns College, Palayamkottai (a Bat expert) and Dr Ravindranath Aithala (a Snake expert) allowed us to learn more about the fauna that live in or near to suranga so that we can better understand their conservation value as a new habitat.

During our time there, we also talked with the Varanashi Research Foundation to learn more about how suranga fit into broader systems of farming and water harvesting strategies.

The full length documentary is currently being produced and we hope that it may be ready for release in about a year’s time.