Wednesday 7 December 2016

'The HSE could not achieve the national health intervention that Operation Transformation does' - Dr Ciara Kelly

It may not transform the nation - but it's a good start

Ciara Kelly

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Pictured at the Operation Transformation 2016 finale - Dr Eddie Murphy, Dr Ciara Kelly, Kathryn Thomas, Aoife Hearne and Karl Henry. Picture Andres Poveda
Pictured at the Operation Transformation 2016 finale - Dr Eddie Murphy, Dr Ciara Kelly, Kathryn Thomas, Aoife Hearne and Karl Henry. Picture Andres Poveda
Making a change: Kathryn Thomas with participants in Operation Transformation.

Operation Transformation is over for another year and what can I say?

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OT9 was the biggest season ever of our national broadcaster's flagship health show, and despite it being nearly a decade old, it continues to climb in the ratings at a time when television ratings overall are dropping in favour of online media. It seems even though (or possibly because of the fact that) we're getting heavier - we can't get enough of the very simple concept of following the journey of a group of ordinary people who are attempting to lose weight, and, in most cases, get their lives back on track.

To me, that's the secret of Operation Transformation's success. The human interest. People really do get behind the five leaders and identify with, and care about, them. I've been at tons of OT events at this stage, and I'm always struck by the incredible, genuine support and affection that complete strangers show the five brave souls who open up their lives and their homes to the TV cameras.

It's television - so there are always highs and lows. Targets are missed, tears are shed. But equally, hopes are exceeded and fears are conquered - and that's just the experts! It makes headlines and trends on Twitter. And its pros and cons are widely discussed in the media - usually centring on whether or not it actually makes a difference to our nation's health and whether the leaders should have to wear Lycra. Interestingly, the leaders themselves never complain about the Lycra - that's all other people.

I've been the medical expert on OT for the past three years, and what I do know is all our leaders say it's an enormously positive life-changing experience for them and that in some cases it may even have saved their lives. But for me, the real importance of the programme is not just what it does for the five on the telly; it's all about the followers and the communities around the country who join them on a programme of healthy eating and physical activity. So that in small towns from Belmullet to Carnew there are thousands of people in high-viz jackets out walking on dark rainy January evenings who'd otherwise likely be home watching TV.

So for those who say it's not really affecting behaviour or influencing public health, I say this: there's simply no way that the Government or indeed the HSE could achieve the same kind of national health intervention that OT does. That is, over six million hits on its website by people following the food and exercise plan; 176,000 people following the Facebook page; and over half a million viewers per week. Culminating in the largest number of people ever in the country, running a 5k on a single day, when we hooked up with the brilliant park runs to get people out moving for the 5k finale.

The health campaigns are brilliant too. So this year we had the 'It's your move' campaign to get adolescent girls throughout Ireland - who we know fall away from exercise in general, in their early teens - involved in a dance-athon. And the hugely important 'Million Pound Challenge', where we asked the whole country to register their weight loss in an attempt to lose a million lbs. as a nation. Although this amounts only to a few lbs. each, it would make a massive difference to our nation's health.

Safefoods, who partner with OT, has done research which shows that one in three of those who watch do so in the hope of becoming healthier. More than 100,000 people report they have lost weight from following it, and 250,000 said they had made healthy changes to their lifestyle. There's a balance to be struck between information and entertainment, but OT is health promotion made accessible, while remaining engaging. Win/win.

@ciarakellydoc

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