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Targeted Health Behavior Interventions Promoting Physical Activity: A Conceptual Model

Morgan, Philip J.; Young, Myles D.; Smith, Jordan J.; Lubans, David R.

Exercise & Sport Sciences Reviews: April 2016 - Volume 44 - Issue 2 - p 71–80
doi: 10.1249/JES.0000000000000075
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This article presents a conceptual model illustrating a targeted approach to the design and delivery of health behavior interventions that focus on physical activity promotion. We hypothesize that researchers who i) enhance the sociocultural relevance of their core intervention components and ii) recognize the unique contributions of both intervention design and delivery will experience greater intervention engagement and improved outcomes.

This article presents a conceptual model of key factors that characterize a socioculturally targeted approach to physical activity intervention design and delivery.

1Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition and 2School of Education, Faculty of Education and Arts, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, New South Wales, Australia.

Address for correspondence: Philip J. Morgan, Ph.D., Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition, Faculty of Education and Arts, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, New South Wales 2308, Australia (E-mail: philip.morgan@newcastle.edu.au).

Accepted for publication: December 7, 2015.

Associate Editor: Ryan E. Rhodes, Ph.D.

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal’s Web site (www.acsm-essr.org).

Key Points

* Behavior-change interventions are an important part of the broader solution to physical inactivity, but previous interventions have demonstrated only modest effects. Limitations of these programs include a lack of attention given to: i) important socio-cultural factors that affect engagement and ii) the role of intervention delivery on study outcomes.

* This article presents a conceptual model illustrating a socio-culturally targeted approach to intervention design and delivery. The model was informed by existing literature and experiential insights we have gained by personally delivering targeted physical activity programs to ’at-risk’ sub-groups

* We propose that participant recruitment and engagement in physical activity interventions are optimized when unique values and preferences of the target sample are incorporated across four core program components (content, format, facilitator, pedagogy).

* We also highlight the important influence of intervention delivery on study outcomes. Specifically, we suggest that the characteristics and pedagogical approach of facilitators have powerful, but under-recognized influences on intervention effectiveness.

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INTRODUCTION

Regular physical activity is associated with a decreased risk of many chronic health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness (23). However, the majority of adults and young people worldwide are not sufficiently active (16). Consequently, physical inactivity is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide (21), highlighting the need for effective interventions.

Because physical inactivity results from multiple individual, interpersonal, societal, and environmental factors, it requires a systems-based solution that acknowledges the complex interactions between these determinants and targets physical activity participation at multiple levels (e.g., individual, environment, policy) (21). Behavioral physical activity interventions are an important component of this broader solution, but reviews suggest that previous behavioral interventions have been only modestly effective for both young people and adults (6,7,28). The tendency for previous interventions to predominantly target individual-level factors may have contributed to this limited impact as this approach does not consider other sociocultural and environmental influences that could also affect program engagement and efficacy in different population subgroups (21).

Cultural targeting may be a key strategy to improve the efficacy of behavioral physical activity interventions, especially in at-risk groups (6). As defined by Kreuter and Skinner (22), cultural targeting involves the development of an intervention “for a defined population subgroup that takes into account characteristics shared by the subgroup’s members.” In social science research, the term culture is often used interchangeably with ethnicity, and many culturally targeted physical activity interventions have focused on specific ethnic subgroups (6). However, in a broader sense, culture has been described as “the norms, values, beliefs, and behaviors that are common in a population” (39). Using this sociocultural perspective, it is clear that interventions may also be targeted toward a diverse number of groups based on combinations of variables including sex, age, marital status, parenting status, and socioeconomic position.

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Conceptual Model

This article presents a conceptual model that illustrates our socioculturally targeted approach to the design and delivery of health promotion interventions that promote physical activity (Fig. 1). Although this model is relevant for many health behaviors, it has been shaped through reflections on our programs that have targeted physical activity as a means of improving overall health (10,24,26,32–36,41). We hypothesize that physical activity researchers and practitioners who i) adapt the core intervention components to match the unique attributes and preferences of their sample and ii) recognize the important contributions of both intervention design and delivery will experience greater intervention engagement and improved outcomes.

It is important to acknowledge that this model is not a formal protocol for intervention planning. Rather, the model answers the recent call for researchers to provide more experiential insights into intervention components that may be linked to intervention acceptability and efficacy (11). Thus, the model should be viewed as a complement to existing intervention planning approaches, such as the Intervention Mapping Approach (2), which provide more formal, structured, and iterative processes to guide intervention design, implementation, and evaluation. The model also builds on Resnicow and colleagues’ model of cultural sensitivity (38), which proposes that interventions will be most effective if they are matched to both the observable characteristics of the subgroup (i.e., the surface structure) and their core cultural values (i.e., the deep structure). Examples of how the surface and deep-structure components of our programs have been targeted for each subgroup can be located in the Supplementary Table (http://links.lww.com/ESSR/A16).

As presented in Figure 1, to develop an effective intervention, it is important to gain an in-depth understanding of the unique sample characteristics (i.e., values, preferences, motivators, challenges) of the specific subgroup to be targeted. Throughout this article, we will provide examples of such insights as they relate to our various target populations. This knowledge was obtained through pilot work, focus groups, interviews, process evaluations, observations, personal researcher reflections, examination of existing literature, and extensive experience personally delivering interventions in school and community settings.

With a greater understanding of the target population, these insights can then be used as a “sociocultural lens” to i) increase the salience of recruitment strategies for the target group and ii) inform the selection and implementation of core intervention components, which we have grouped into the following four categories: i) content (e.g., targeted behaviors, program messages, behavior change techniques), ii) format (i.e., the setting, mode of delivery, duration, and dose of the program), iii) facilitator (e.g., qualifications, experience, and personal attributes), and iv) pedagogy (i.e., teaching strategies used by the facilitator to deliver the intervention content effectively). We believe that all of these components are integral to any behavioral intervention and can be socioculturally adapted to match the needs of specific population subgroups.

In addition, the model recognizes that both intervention design and intervention delivery characteristics exhibit unique and important influences on participant engagement and intervention outcomes. Importantly, each can serve to heighten or undermine the impact of the other. For example, the impact of a well-designed, theoretically sound, targeted intervention can be hampered by a poor facilitator. Similarly, the influence of an excellent facilitator may be restricted if the intervention content and format are poor. Although both components may provide substantial contributions to intervention effectiveness, it seems that physical activity researchers have predominantly focused and reported on the science and application of the intervention design elements (e.g., behavior change techniques, operationalization of theory), with less attention paid to the critical role of intervention delivery (30). Indeed, the CONSORT (Consolidated Standards Of Reporting Trials) extension for nonpharmacologic treatments (4) appears to consider intervention delivery variables as external sources of bias, rather than important intervention components that can be optimized.

Our conceptual model was developed through reflection on the strengths and lessons learned from our program of work, in which we have developed, tested, and published a series of health behavior interventions promoting physical activity in underrepresented and at-risk population subgroups. In this article, we will present examples of how our previous studies have informed the conceptual model and how the model continues to inform our intervention work. It is important to interpret all of our studies as works in progress that have not been without their limitations. However, as these programs have advanced from pilot and efficacy trials to translation trials and broader program dissemination, they have been adapted and improved in response to extensive feedback from participants, facilitators, and key stakeholders. Importantly, these revisions also have allowed us to optimize the sociocultural relevance of the programs after considering feedback from participants alongside study outcome data and measures of participant engagement.

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Overview of Programs

The following section summarizes the intervention components and study results of four health promotion interventions that have targeted physical activity in different subgroups. After this general overview, to contextualize our model, we will describe how recruitment, design, and delivery components for the four programs were adapted for increased sociocultural relevance in each subgroup.

Our interventions include the following: i) the Self-Help, Exercise, and Diet using Information Technology (SHED-IT) Weight Loss Program for overweight and obese men (32,35,36); ii) the Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids (HDHK) Program for overweight fathers and their primary school–aged children (33,34); iii) the Nutrition and Enjoyable Activity for Teen (NEAT) Girls Program for low-income, inactive adolescent girls (10,26); and iv) the Active Teen Leaders Avoiding Screen-time (ATLAS) Program for low-income adolescent boys at risk of obesity (24,41). A summary of study results for these trials is located in Table 1. Furthermore, the Supplementary Table provides extended details on the participant characteristics, study interventions, and supporting references for strategies used to increase the sociocultural relevance in each program.

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The SHED-IT Weight Loss Program

The SHED-IT Weight Loss Program is a gender-targeted, self-administered weight loss program for men. Initially, the program included one group face-to-face information session plus a program handbook. In a pilot study at the University of Newcastle (35,36), 65 overweight/obese staff and students were randomized to a SHED-IT Resources-only group or a SHED-IT Online group. Although there were no significant between-group differences at posttest, both groups demonstrated significant within-group effects for weight and a host of secondary outcomes, including physical activity, which were maintained at 6 and 12 months. As seen in Table 1, participant satisfaction and retention rates were very high. This study was followed by a community effectiveness trial with 159 men, where the Online and Resources-only versions of the program were compared with a control group (32). In addition to refining the program based on participant feedback, an additional logbook was created for participants to complete Social Cognitive Theory–based tasks, and the information session was replaced with a digital video disk (DVD) to increase scalability. Notably, despite including no face-to-face contact, the men in both intervention groups demonstrated significant and sustained improvements in weight, physical activity, and most other outcomes compared with the control group (32).

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The HDHK Program

HDHK was first tested in a pilot randomized controlled trial (RCT) at the University of Newcastle with 51 overweight and obese men and their 71 primary school–aged children (34). The 3-month program was designed to help the men lose weight and role model healthy behaviors to their children. After 6 months, significant intervention effects were identified for the primary outcome (fathers’ weight) and other outcomes including physical activity (for fathers and children). This trial was followed by an effectiveness RCT with 93 fathers and 132 children, where trained local facilitators delivered the program in two regional areas with high rates of mining and shift work–based employment (33). Despite the challenges often associated with such real-world delivery models, significant and clinically meaningful improvements were again observed for adiposity and physical activity in both fathers and children. Program satisfaction was very high in both trials, and retention levels exceeded 80% at all assessments (Table 1). Based on participant feedback, process questionnaires, and focus groups, the HDHK program was improved further to include more dads and kids sessions, greater involvement of mothers, and additional engaging learning experiences for both fathers and children. This version of HDHK currently is being evaluated in a translation trial.

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The NEAT Girls Program

The NEAT Girls intervention (10,26) was developed to address the precipitous decline in physical activity levels among adolescent girls (16). The program was socioculturally adapted from an existing intervention called Program X (25), which was originally delivered to both male and female students concurrently. During this pilot trial, girls seemed particularly receptive to messages about healthy eating and, unlike the boys, significantly improved their consumption of fruit by postintervention (25). In light of this, the revised NEAT Girls intervention incorporated nutrition education and cooking workshops as major intervention components. Reflections on Program X also led to the conclusion that girls would benefit more from a single-sex environment, in which they could participate in activities that aligned with their preferences (e.g., Pilates and Zumba) without having to feel anxious about being active in front of male classmates. After these updates, the NEAT Girls program was evaluated in a cluster RCT with 357 adolescent girls attending schools in low-income communities (10,26). At posttest (12 months), there were no significant intervention effects for body composition or physical activity, but significant reductions in screen time were noted. Two years from baseline, there was a significant group-by-time effect for body fat in favor of the intervention group.

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The ATLAS Program

The Physical Activity Leaders (PAL) program was a successful pilot study (24) that informed the ATLAS obesity prevention intervention for adolescent boys (24,41). The program was evaluated for a 6-month period in a sample of 100 adolescent boys attending four schools in low-income communities (24). After 6 months, there were significant intervention effects for weight, body mass index, body fat, and physical self-esteem but not for muscular fitness (push-ups, sit-ups) or physical activity. Based on a detailed process evaluation and feedback from teachers, the intervention was refined extensively, including additional professional development for teachers, greater autonomy for students, and variety in sessions as well as the inclusion of a smartphone app and Web site for self-monitoring and goal setting. The ATLAS cluster RCT was conducted in 14 schools with 361 boys (24,41). There were no significant intervention effects for body composition or physical activity, although significant intervention effects were found for screen time, muscular fitness (push-ups), and resistance training skill competency. After taking participant and teacher feedback into consideration, we are currently evaluating modified and improved versions of NEAT and ATLAS in an effectiveness trial in 16 secondary schools, which will further inform a translational study.

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MODEL COMPONENTS

Recruitment

Recruitment for physical activity interventions can be very challenging, particularly for the at-risk groups we have targeted including men, fathers and inactive adolescents (20,43). However, we believe that a critical factor influencing our recruitment success has been the targeting of unique motivators for each subgroup via socioculturally relevant “hooks” embedded within the recruitment approaches.

Our recruitment efforts for the SHED-IT and HDHK studies focused on content and outcomes that would be meaningful for, and valued by, men and fathers. For example, the male-only nature and scientific legitimacy of the programs were highlighted in the recruitment materials because these factors have been shown to be important for men’s participation in health research (43). Sensitive use of humor in the SHED-IT materials emphasized the opportunity for men to improve their health without major lifestyle disruption (e.g., “we will show you how to lose weight without giving up beer”). The recruitment materials for the HDHK program not only focused on the father-only nature of the study but also targeted unique paternal motivators such as fathers’ important influence on child development and the opportunity to spend quality time with their children while engaging in appealing physical activities such as rough-and-tumble play. Of note, the recruitment materials did not describe all intervention goals. For example, although a central focus of HDHK was to provide fathers with parenting strategies to improve their children’s physical activity and dietary behaviors, this was not highlighted in the recruitment materials because research suggests that many parents do not perceive their children’s physical activity or dietary behaviors to be in need of change or as important as other academic or developmental outcomes (8).

The challenges of recruiting adolescents into school-based research have been reported in the literature (20). As seen in the Supplementary Table, the NEAT and ATLAS studies used a range of socioculturally appropriate strategies to assist with participant recruitment, including presentations to students by same-sex role models, information leaflets promoting enjoyable activity in single-sex classes, and demonstrations of noncompetitive lifelong physical activities (e.g., skipping, dance, yoga, Pilates, resistance training). These strategies may have particular utility for recruiting adolescent girls because this group often has poor physical self-perceptions and may feel less threatened in a female-only environment, where competition and individual ability are not emphasized (27). Indeed, evidence suggests that recruitment campaigns focusing on enjoyment, social aspects, and personal mastery may be effective strategies for recruiting adolescent girls in physical activity programs (19). Although the recruitment strategies for ATLAS and PAL (24) were similar to those used in the NEAT Girls study, the materials were socioculturally adapted to focus on strength and fitness outcomes (e.g., “Would you like to get fitter and stronger?”), which are particularly salient among young western males (15).

This socioculturally targeted approach to recruitment has assisted us to successfully recruit participants who typically are considered hard to reach in physical activity research (13,20,43). For example, although men notoriously are hard to engage in weight loss research (43), the recruitment drive for the SHED-IT community weight loss trial generated more than 600 expressions of interest from men in the local community within a week. In addition, 357 girls from schools in low-income areas provided written consent to participate in the NEAT girls RCT within a 4-wk period. Finally, this approach has been successful in recruiting fathers into the HDHK program, even though fathers consistently are underrepresented in parent-based interventions (40).

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Content

The content of an intervention includes all information and recommendations designed to improve behavior as well as the health behavior theory selected to inform the program and the behavior change techniques (BCTs) used. Although many health recommendations are applicable to the general population, we contend that participants’ attention to, and retention of, these messages will increase if the messages are adapted to be relevant, memorable, persuasive, and meaningful to the experience of the target group.

Researchers are faced with a considerable challenge to comprehensively describe the content of behavioral interventions in research articles. However, the field has taken notable strides in recent years with the advent of the BCT taxonomy (31). By providing researchers with a set of explicitly defined techniques, this taxonomy has reduced the ambiguity in intervention description and interpretation. However, it is also important to acknowledge that many BCTs are socioculturally neutral, and researchers have significant scope to make them more engaging and effective. Indeed, Michie et al. (31) suggest that the way BCTs are presented to participants “may have as great or larger impact on outcomes as the techniques themselves.” Furthermore, BCTs have distinct parameters for effectiveness, and contextual factors (e.g., sample characteristics) may moderate whether these parameters are met (37). For example, two of the parameters in the modeling of behavior BCT are i) that participants attend to the communication and ii) that participants identify with the model (37). Notably, both of these parameters can be addressed by improving the sociocultural relevance of the BCT.

In addition to informing how specific BCTs are presented, the sociocultural lens can inform the way physical activity messages are “pitched” to participants to target valued and socioculturally relevant outcomes. For example, in our experience with the HDHK program, we have observed that it often is more effective to frame physical activity advice as a means to improve children’s social-emotional well-being rather than for the purposes of obesity prevention or improving physical fitness. In recognition of this, we have gradually increased the emphasis placed on the important mental health benefits for children that are linked to father-child co–physical activity. Similarly, rather than focusing on the metabolic health consequences of excessive screen time, the intervention content now emphasizes how screen time reduces opportunities for social interaction, bonding, and meaningful conversations (particularly at mealtimes) and decreases the likelihood of optimal cognitive and social-emotional development in children. Another novel aspect of the HDHK program is its focus on reciprocal reinforcement, where fathers and children are independently encouraged to role model healthy behaviors at home for the benefit of the other. We have noticed that engagement with health behavior messages, particularly among the children, is considerably stronger when study participants feel responsible for the health and well-being of a loved one.

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Format

In addition to informing intervention content, physical activity researchers and practitioners should also consider the preferences of their target sample when selecting the format of their intervention. These attributes include the setting (e.g., community, school), mode of delivery (e.g., face-to-face, group, online, combination), duration (i.e., program length), and dose (i.e., contact frequency). Although these considerations often are constrained by external factors (e.g., funding, capacity), the format of an intervention plays a critical role in both the recruitment and engagement of participants. This concept is well illustrated by the recent Football Fans in Training project in the United Kingdom, where the male participants reported that the program setting (professional football stadiums) was the biggest drawcard for participation (18).

We have attempted to increase the sociocultural relevance of our interventions by considering how the program format characteristics can best reflect the needs, preferences, and characteristics of the target sample. For example, in the NEAT and ATLAS programs, we ensured that the programs were delivered on the school campus, in single-sex groups, and at no cost to the students. In Australia, many school sport activities are delivered off campus and students are required to pay for transport and/or participation. Such costs may serve as a barrier to participation among young people, especially those from low-income communities. In addition, effort and ability are generally on public display in physical education, and both mixed-sex and mixed-ability classes can be a source of anxiety for students (3). Alternatively, The SHED-IT program has evolved to become a self-guided program requiring no commitments from the male participants to attend ongoing behavioral counseling sessions. This format aligns with a traditional hegemonic view of masculinity, where valued male characteristics include self-reliance, strength, and independence (9). Of note, despite including no face-to-face sessions, results in the SHED-IT community trial were comparable to more intensive male-only programs in the physical activity (13) and weight loss (43) literature. Furthermore, 89% of men reported that the program provided them with adequate support for weight loss (32).

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Facilitator

Although notable improvements have been observed in the reporting of intervention design characteristics, the field remains limited by a dearth of information regarding mechanisms of intervention delivery. As Michie and Johnston (30) summarize, complex behavioral interventions are often often delivered by individuals of unreported competence. However, It is reasonable to expect that the characteristics and qualifications of an intervention facilitator may have a considerable impact on program efficacy. Indeed, meta-analyses in the psychology literature have determined that the personal and professional characteristics of therapists are important determinants of treatment effectiveness (17). Through our process evaluation data, observations of facilitators, and examination of the broader literature, we have identified the following optimal facilitator characteristics to increase participant engagement in behavior change interventions targeting physical activity: i) the dispositions (i.e., character or mentality) of the facilitator; ii) perceptions of the facilitator as credible, relatable, and likable; and iii) facilitator motivation.

Drawn from research in the fields of education, intelligence, talent, and creativity, the Dispositional Cluster Model (12) outlines the five clusters of dispositions that epitomize highly effective teachers (or facilitators). As suggested by the model, an effective facilitator is i) committed (i.e., purposeful, organized, and motivated), ii) creative (i.e., curious, original, and a problem solver), iii) communicative (i.e., knowledgeable, a good listener, and uses humor to engage), iv) authentic (i.e., caring, empathetic, and open), and v) passionate (i.e., enthusiastic, positive, and energetic). The presence (and absence) of these dispositions, as well as the subsequent effects on participants’ engagement, has been clear during researcher observations of facilitators delivering our programs. Although it may not be possible to find a facilitator who embodies all of these characteristics, it is important to keep in mind that these traits should be sought after and fostered in facilitators to enhance the quality of the program.

In addition to these dispositions, we suggest that perceptions of the facilitator as credible, relatable, and likable are implicit drivers of participant engagement and receptiveness to intervention messages. According to the authority heuristic, individuals presented with novel or unfamiliar information will determine the legitimacy of the information by firstly deferring to the credibility of the source (29). Within our programs, we have attempted to establish credibility with multiple strategies including the use of university badging on program materials, the inclusion of facilitator and research team titles and qualifications on introduction slides, and citations of our published research articles. However, because the confidence heuristic (i.e., a rule of thumb that someone speaking confidently is likely to be correct) also has an important influence on credibility judgments (42), facilitators in our programs are trained to present confidently and to respond with authority to spontaneous questions from participants. Another consideration is that the facilitator characteristics that contribute to credibility may vary between different sociocultural groups. For example, in men’s weight loss trials, a facilitator’s credibility may be undermined if he or she is overweight or obese (1). However, in our experience, the weight status of the facilitator has not been of consequence in programs with adolescent girls, where enthusiasm and active participation in the program activities seem to have a greater bearing on credibility judgments. Establishing credibility has been particularly important in our work with teachers, who may see university academics as disconnected with the real-world challenges of working with adolescents. To build teacher perceptions of our credibility, members of our research team delivered the first ATLAS session in each of the study schools and physical education teachers were encouraged to evaluate our teaching using a structured observation checklist.

Another key driver of participant engagement is relatability. The similarity-attraction hypothesis suggests that individuals express an implicit bias in favor of those who are similar to themselves. Indeed, the use of physical activity facilitators who share the same beliefs and values of the participants has been recommended in the literature (6). In our research, we have aimed to enhance perceptions of relatability by providing subgroups with facilitators of the same sex (e.g., men were selected to deliver the HDHK program; same-sex teachers delivered the ATLAS and NEAT programs). However, other examples also may be effective (e.g., a man with his own weight loss success delivering a men’s weight loss program), bearing in mind feasibility constraints that may limit the selection of suitable facilitators.

We also propose that positive attitudes toward intervention facilitators (i.e., likability) contribute to engagement. The liking/agreement heuristic is a simple decision rule based on the reasoning that “people I like usually have correct opinions on issues” (5). Importantly, likability can be enhanced by training facilitators on how to enhance the quality and quantity of positive social interactions with participants and by embedding learning experiences in the program that bring out likable characteristics of the facilitator. For example, in our programs targeting men, we plan for the deliberate use of humor to engage participants. In HDHK, facilitators are trained and encouraged to be ready for sessions early and to stay late so they have time to meet and greet families and initiate conversations around program successes and challenges. In addition to optimizing social interactions, the delivery of enjoyable learning activities may also enhance likability because positive associations with the program activities may generalize to positive feelings toward the individual delivering them. Notably, our study participants have reported highly positive evaluations of the facilitators in both our pilot and community-based train-the-trainer research (Table 1). It is important to note that participants’ perceptions of the facilitator as credible, relatable, and likable are dynamic and may continue to be enhanced or undermined during the delivery of intervention content and interaction with study participants. For example, citing relevant experience and qualifications at the start of a physical activity program may enhance perceptions of credibility in the short-term. However, these positive perceptions may not be sustained if a facilitator cannot confidently answer pertinent questions asked by study participants. In acknowledgment of this, strategies for enhancing credibility, relatability, and likability are now addressed explicitly during the facilitator training workshops within the HDHK community trial.

Finally, we view the motivation of facilitators as another key characteristic central to the successful delivery of physical activity programs. Ensuring that intervention facilitators are engaged wholeheartedly with the program may improve fidelity, and we have used a number of strategies to enhance facilitator motivation to both enroll in and optimally deliver our programs. For example, we organized for the ATLAS facilitator workshops to be accredited with the state authority responsible for managing teacher professional learning. The provision of accredited professional learning hours was a tangible and salient incentive for teachers. In addition, we have embedded autonomy-supportive strategies within the professional learning component of our current ATLAS and NEAT effectiveness trial, with the aim of enhancing autonomous motivation among participating teachers.

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Pedagogy

Considering that the majority of physical activity interventions incorporate an educational component of some kind, it is surprising that the extensive literature on pedagogy (i.e., the science of teaching) seems to have been largely overlooked in behavioral physical activity intervention research. In addition to the personal characteristics and qualifications of the program facilitator, researchers and practitioners should consider the way that information is delivered or taught to be a core component for all physical activity interventions. Principles of effective pedagogy, such as those outlined in the Productive Pedagogy and Quality Teaching frameworks (14), identify important elements of teacher practice that enhance motivation and learning.

For example, an important pedagogical technique used in our interventions is the use of narrative or storytelling, which is an engaging and effective way to transfer knowledge. For example, the HDHK program has many built-in opportunities for facilitators to share their own stories (or those of previous participants) about occasions where implementing the program recommendations has led to improvements in their family life or physical activity habits. This technique also was particularly important in the SHED-IT program, where participants received a DVD depicting a day in the life of a middle-aged overweight man who was chosen as a relatable model for the target sample. In this DVD, the narrative of the protagonist was interspersed with strategies for avoiding common weight loss pitfalls during a typical day and was delivered by a credible expert (a men’s weight loss researcher).

Another technique is substantive communication, where participants are engaged meaningfully in sustained conversations about concepts and ideas. Rather than using a didactic lecture-style approach in our presentations and facilitator training workshops, we aim to make the sessions highly interactive with numerous opportunities for input and discussion from participants that are embedded within the program slides and handbooks. The use of a variety of engaging learning experiences such as small groups/pairs challenges and brainstorms, role plays, spot quizzes, debates, and group trivia competitions help to engage participants and maintain their interest with the intervention content.

The pedagogical techniques of connectedness and background knowledge refer to applying new information to real-life contexts or problems and to build explicitly on individuals’ existing knowledge and experiences. We aim to make the information presented in our programs meaningful and engaging by recognizing the preferences, valued outcomes, and previous experiences of study participants. For example, in HDHK, we provide practical demonstrations of effective parenting strategies and role-playing of common scenarios faced at home. By role-playing scenarios, such as child responses to parenting efforts to reduce screen time and encourage outdoor play, fathers are engaged in real-life examples, some of which may connect deeply with their own life experiences.

Failure to address the important role of intervention delivery may explain why promising findings from pilot studies with carefully selected facilitators often are not replicated in larger-scale effectiveness RCTs. Indeed, research has demonstrated that physical activity interventions delivered by research staff have been more effective than those delivered under train-the-trainer models (7). Although a comprehensive understanding of the science of teaching is not prerequisite knowledge for researchers and program facilitators, teaching skills can be improved with appropriate training and ongoing support. In recognition of this, 50% of the HDHK facilitator training course now focuses solely on effective teaching strategies. Similarly, in addition to learning about the SAAFE (Supportive, Active, Autonomous, Fair, and Enjoyable) teaching principles during the professional learning workshops, ATLAS facilitators experience follow-up observations of their sessions and receive constructive feedback to ensure that these pedagogical principles are being implemented appropriately.

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CONCLUSIONS/SUMMARY

This article has presented a conceptual model illustrating key factors that characterize our targeted approach to intervention design and delivery. We propose that intervention planning must begin first with an in-depth understanding of the sociocultural values and preferences of the target sample. This information then can be used as a sociocultural lens to inform the recruitment strategy and develop the core intervention components (i.e., the content, format, facilitator and pedagogy) in a way that will optimize recruitment and enhance participant engagement. A second aim of this article was to highlight the important, but underrecognized, influence of intervention delivery on trial efficacy. Specifically, we suggest that the characteristics of the facilitator and their pedagogical approach may have a powerful moderating effect on intervention effectiveness, regardless of the quality of the design components of the intervention. Notably, although the independent pathways in this model have been examined to varying degrees across multiple disciplines to date, we believe that this article presents the first integration of these concepts into a single model to guide the design, conduct, and evaluation of socioculturally relevant and effective physical activity interventions in the future. Our recommendations for researchers and practitioners designing and delivering targeted physical activity interventions are located in Table 2.

Importantly, this model was informed by our experience designing and delivering health promotion programs, which have evolved continually in response to the feedback of participants, facilitators, and other key stakeholders. As a result, our model has been informed by not only effective program components but also those components that did not align as strongly with the preferences of the target sample. For example, in response to participant feedback, the format of the HDHK program was updated to include significantly more dads and kids sessions, to include mothers in a greater number of sessions, and to start the program with rough-and-tumble games rather than fitness activities. Similarly, when adapting the PAL program into the ATLAS program, we considered participant feedback and included more interactive games, more variety in activities, and more autonomy support for participants to ensure optimal engagement.

Because social-cultural targeting is a dynamic and iterative process, it is important to consider and observe participants’ views throughout all aspects of intervention design, delivery, and evaluation. In the initial stages of our program development (including pilot testing), we personally delivered our programs and ran the professional development workshops, which provided extremely rich and immediate insight into the unique perceptions, barriers, beliefs, values, and preferences of our participants. These insights were also enhanced through informal conversations with participants before and after the program sessions, where they often would share candid and unbiased reflections on whether the core intervention components were as engaging and effective as we intended. As such, we strongly recommend that lead researchers of targeted physical activity projects take an active hands-on role during the program delivery as well as design, particularly in efficacy/pilot trials. In cases where researchers do not have the time or the expertise to deliver the program effectively, it is imperative that the trained facilitators are available to have these conversations with participants before and after the sessions and regularly communicate any notable information and insights back to the lead researchers.

Currently, the experiential nature of our model is its primary limitation. As such, further testing is required to validate each component of the model in controlled research studies. For example, future research could examine whether socioculturally appropriate recruitment materials are more effective at recruiting underrepresented groups into physical activity trials compared with generic recruitment materials. Furthermore, exploring the mechanisms by which socioculturally relevant interventions affect physical activity is a rich area for future research studies. In particular, studies that compare the effectiveness of providing participants with a socioculturally relevant physical activity program compared with a standardized program (or a program that had been socioculturally targeted for a different subgroup) would provide valuable data to test the model. It also is important to recognize that varying degrees of sociocultural identity or alignment will be experienced by members of any given subgroup. However, the additional level of individual adaptation required to provide further tailoring for individuals needs to be matched against feasibility and cost. This will require experimental manipulation of intervention components in well-powered and high-quality trials. Future research also could consider capturing measures of sociocultural homogeneity and investigating whether the effects of socioculturally targeted interventions are moderated by these factors.

Finally, to improve our understanding of the important impact of intervention delivery on study outcomes, researchers should strive to provide comprehensive details of who is delivering physical activity interventions, how they were selected and trained, which pedagogical principles were selected, and how these principles were applied in facilitator training and program delivery to ensure optimal participant engagement.

The authors thank Professors Tom Baranowski and Kylie Ball for their critical feedback on an early draft of this article.

At the time this article was written, David R. Lubans was supported by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship.

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Keywords:

exercise; cultural targeting; program; lifestyle; health education; health behavior; pedagogy

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