Tāmaki Innovation Campus


Slow movement secures funding for childhood research

National Institute for Health Innovation research fellow, Samantha Marsh
Samantha Marsh’s $150,000 grant will fund two years’ research into using the principles of the ‘slow movement’ to prevent obesity from birth.

National Institute for Health Innovation research fellow, Samantha Marsh, is a proponent of the slow movement, and her new take on the subject has made her the recipient of a Health Research Council (HRC) Explorer Grant.

“Explorer Grants are unlike any of our other funding opportunities,” says HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson. “They fund research that might seem ‘out-there’, but which actually has a very good chance of making a transformative change to how we manage New Zealanders’ health.”

Samantha Marsh’s $150,000 grant will fund two years’ research into using the principles of the ‘slow movement’ to prevent obesity from birth.

She says childhood obesity is a long-standing and challenging public health issue facing New Zealand, and a revolutionary approach is needed.

Her thesis is that social change, and in particular an increased pace of life, may be an important driver of childhood obesity, yet not pursued as a target for intervention.

There is, she says, a lot of thinking about the slow movement, which in itself is not a new idea, but the concept of incorporating principles of the slow movement into childhood obesity research has not been explored to date.

It leads on nicely from her PhD on screen use in children and adolescents, where she found linkages between screens and increased energy intake. “However, it is likely that the relationship between screens and bodyweight goes beyond the direct effects on energy intake, with screens interfering with family cohesion, sleep, and mental health, all of which may indirectly impact on bodyweight.”

That led her to posing the question of whether something else was going on within the family social environment; a social environment where the new norm often involves over scheduling, overuse of screens, and over stimulation.

Taking a step back may seem counter intuitive, but Samantha Marsh believes it may reap benefits for the whole family. She points to ways in which ‘speed’ may negatively impact on development of a number of healthy lifestyle behaviours, including movement skills, dietary behaviours, sleep, and parent-child interactions, all of which in turn have consequences not only for bodyweight, but also overall health and well-being.

The project will include focus groups and key informant interviews to inform development of a ‘Slow Parenting’ intervention, which will target obesity in infants and toddlers based on principles of sustainability, respectfulness, and equity.

She believes that ‘speed’, and in particular the use of screens, may negatively affect the foundations of healthy infant and toddler development, including movement (i.e. physical activity), dietary behaviours, sleep, and parent-child interactions, and that simply ‘slowing it all down’ may positively pattern these behaviours for a lifetime. Samantha suggests that such a concept is particularly relevant for parents who consider themselves ‘time poor’, with quality favoured over quantity.

As a long-time medical writer with a background in pharmacology, Samantha Marsh completed a masters degree in public health before joining NIHI and following her interest in the instant gratification and effects of screen time.

Her tip for new parents? Slow down. Allow time for free unstructured play, and for your child to explore new foods at mealtimes. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep. And remember, when it comes to screens in early childhood, less is best - for both you and your child.