By Alice Forster, on 24 January 2016
In the fifth and final post in our series remembering Professor Jane Wardle and some of the contributions she has made to the field of behavioural science, Dr Becca Beeken writes about Jane’s work on the Ten Top Tips and habits.
Novel approaches to weight management
As part of Jane’s pioneering work on obesity, she developed novel, evidence-based methods for weight control. Jane recognised that there was a real need for weight loss advice for the general public that is easy to communicate, straightforward to follow, and applicable across a variety of lifestyles. She also acknowledged that while most weight management programmes talk about ‘habits’, they often just mean things we do all the time, and it’s usually in the context of breaking bad habits. Jane was one of the first behavioural scientists to explore whether we can teach people to form healthy habits, using habit formation theory.
According to psychological theory, habits are (relatively) automatically triggered actions that are formed through repetition in a consistent context, which makes them more and more automatic. Jane and one of her PhD students, Pippa Lally, asked people to pick a simple healthy behaviour, such as doing 50 sit ups, and then instructed them to repeat it in a consistent context (e.g. after their morning coffee). They showed that as time went on, individuals performed the behaviour more often, and they also reported that it felt more automatic- it was becoming a habit. Based on this study, Jane worked with the charities Cancer Research UK and Weight Concern to develop the Ten Top Tips.
The Ten Top Tips is a simple leaflet, which describes a set of ten simple energy balance behaviours that can be turned into habits. The leaflet explains the habit model and how to repeat the behaviours in a consistent context. Jane believed that this kind of intervention, which requires very little time to explain and is easy to understand, may be beneficial in primary care where time is short and effective advice for weight management is needed. Weight management advice that promotes permanent behaviour change is particularly important, because not only is losing weight very difficult, keeping the weight off is notoriously hard. Jane felt the Ten Top Tips could meet this need through helping people to make small changes that would become automatic over the longer term.
Jane led a large randomised controlled trial in obese adults in primary care (GP practices), across England, comparing weight loss in patients receiving the Ten Top Tips vs. ‘usual care’. This was the first time an intervention explicitly based on habit-formation theory had been delivered in the primary care context, and importantly the first evaluation of a simple weight loss advice leaflet. Jane and her team found that that the Ten Top Tips led to significantly more weight loss over 3 months than usual care, with 16% of patients achieving at least 5% weight loss; twice as many as in the usual care arm (8%). At 2 years over a quarter (27%) of patients who received the Ten Tops Tips had achieved at least 5% weight loss, suggesting patients maintained the changes made to their behaviours in the first few months after receiving the Ten Top Tips; they had become ‘habits’.
Jane’s work on the development and evaluation of the Ten Top Tips represents an important milestone for translational behavioural research. The Ten Top Tips could offer a low cost option for weight management in primary care and it has already been widely disseminated across the UK as part of Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign, which aims to raise the awareness of the avoidable risks of cancer. Her research group are continuing to take this important work forward, with new studies exploring the effectiveness of habit based advice for cancer survivors-‘Heathy Habits for Life’, and adapting the Ten Top Tips for families with overweight children-‘Tips for Tots’.