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Innovative 3D animations used by Stirling researchers to motivate young asthma sufferers

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A collaborative study led by the University of Stirling is bringing together behavioural theorists, artists and 3D animators to create new ways of encouraging and motivating young asthma sufferers to exercise.

Researchers are working closely with 12-18 year-olds with asthma, and their parents, to produce an interactive educational tool based on 3D animation, with motivational and skill developing elements, to get the young people active.

The animations will enable teenagers and their parents to visualise the lungs and bronchi, the mechanism of asthma, identify the differences between asthma and breathlessness due to inactivity and the impact of inhalers.  The animations will aim to address three barriers to engaging in activity identified by the research group in earlier research: beliefs about the safety of exercise, their ability to be active and low motivation.

A child-specific activity plan will then be agreed between parents, health professionals and school staff, who will also facilitate the translation of intentions into changes in behaviour.

The 18 month-long study led by the Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Professions (NMAHP) Research Unit, has been given funding of £225,000 by the Chief Scientist Office and involves behavioural scientists, asthma nurses, GPs, and charity Asthma UK.

An estimated one in five children in the UK is now affected by asthma.  Physical activity is particularly important for them as it can lead to improvements in fitness, along with asthma-related benefits such as reduced hospital admissions, reduced absenteeism from school, fewer consultations with health professionals, reduced medication use and improved ability to cope more generally with the condition. 

Professor Brian Williams, Director of NMAHP Research Unit said: “Activity levels among healthy young people are falling in most industrialised nations and children and young people with asthma are less likely to be physically active than their peers.

“Studies show that young people with asthma can exercise safely if appropriately treated and can significantly improve their cardiovascular fitness and quality of life by doing so.  However, young people with asthma are even less likely to be physically active than their peers and they attribute this to their asthma.  

“There is a need to develop strategies that address the unique barriers to activity faced by young people with asthma. There is a perception by some parents and teachers that if the child has asthma and exercises there is a safety issue in case of an attack. Sometimes there is a misconception where they think they are having an attack but it may be there is just a low level of fitness.

“We need to challenge perceptions of safety and capability.

“The animations give people a visual picture of what is and what is not happening to them. There is evidence to show that when people can visualise then it helps them to understand what is going on.”

The idea for the animations was adapted from earlier nationally funded work previously carried out by Stirling researchers, helping people with cardiovascular disease to visualise their conditions and motivate changes to their lifestyle.

Professor Williams added: “Animations clearly demonstrate how cause and effect are linked and makes the outcomes less abstract and more concrete.  This has been shown to influence attitudes and intentions and increase the likelihood of behaviour change.

“Visual media is highly acceptable to patients and is more memorable than verbal or text based messages. “

Children’s, parents’ and teachers’ beliefs about capability, motivation and safety are the principle reasons for low activity levels among children with asthma. Teachers find it difficult to distinguish between children incapable of participation in activity due to health problems and those who were simply unmotivated and/or cited parents’ or doctors’ to justify their exclusion. 

Parents reported that as a result of asthma: 31% did not participate in sport; 21% did not ride a bicycle; 20% did not swim; and 18% did not take part in break time play at school. 

The Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Professions Research Unit is a nationally funded research Unit supported by the Chief Scientist Office, Scottish Government.

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