Special Report: Researchers putting Sheffield on the path to a healthy future

Sheffield is to benefit from one of the largest installations of running routes in England thanks to a new city-wide partnership which has secured over �100,000 of funding from England Athletics.
Sheffield is to benefit from one of the largest installations of running routes in England thanks to a new city-wide partnership which has secured over �100,000 of funding from England Athletics.

The Yorkshire Health Study, led by a team from Sheffield University’s School of Health and Related Research, is on a mission to measure the city’s weight, drinking, mood and exercise habits

The results of the Yorkshire Health Study in Sheffield paint a mixed picture. There are the key figures that confirm existing worries - namely that more than half of the poll’s respondents reported being overweight or obese, and that 60 per cent had one or more long-standing illness or disability - and more surprising findings too.

In an age where depression and anxiety are understood to be increasingly rife, the city’s average ‘happiness rating’ of 7.5 out of 10 is an upbeat statistic, while people’s drinking is reasonably moderate - more than a quarter of the 10,860 Sheffield adults who took part had not drunk any alcohol in the past week, and just eight per cent had ‘binged’ in the previous seven days.

Dr Clare Relton, senior research fellow at Sheffield University’s School of Health and Related Research, leads the team behind the study. She said it was hard to gauge the city’s overall health, but that she was ‘slightly surprised and pleased’ with some of the results.

“It depends where you’re comparing Sheffield to. Compared to Glasgow, yes, we’re a healthy city, but to Richmond in London, no, we’re not. People are a bit happier than I thought. The older they were, the happier they were. Maybe you just start to accept things more!”

The 35-year study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, started six years ago, and the data was collected in two ‘waves’, from 2010-12 and 2013-15.

Participants were aged 16 to 85, and answered questionnaires sent out by post and online. Part of the aim is to help inform the decision-making of local councils.

Data is also gathered from other towns and cities in Yorkshire and the Humber.

“The study has grown generally in size - we’re now at 35,000 questionnaires filled in, but we’re aiming for at least 50,000 and hopefully 100,000,” said Dr Relton, who claimed the project was one of the first of its kind.

“It’s quite innovative. There are lots of what are called ‘cohort studies’, which take a particular group of people, but this is one of the first that looks at a whole population.

“It’s been better than my colleagues predicted. If you have a large number of people the results will be much more representative.”

The average age of those who responded was 55. People with a long-term condition were, on average, older - 21 per cent reported pain, 15 per cent had fatigue and 18 per cent were living with high blood pressure.

“We do take a lot of medication,” said Dr Relton.

“You can almost imagine people in Sheffield rattling as they walk around. We do know that the drugs budget in the NHS is very significant. On average people take two or three medications every day prescribed by their doctor. Some of these are people much older, and we do know people get generally less healthy the older they get. Even so, it’s still very surprising.”

She added: “I think it definitely is a cause for concern. The things that really affect your health are what you eat and how you eat it, our exercise, wellbeing and mental attitude, and our access to green spaces. These are things that have a huge impact on our lives in the long term but are actually quite difficult to manipulate.

“Every day we have to make sensible decisions about what we eat, our exercise and how we think and relate to others and our environment. That’s much harder to do consistently than popping a pill.”

For more than 45 per cent of adults, their chief source of exercise - an activity carried out for more than three hours a week - was walking. Just over 16 per cent did physical exercise, such as sport or visiting the gym, while little more than three-and-a-half per cent cycled.

“We don’t exercise enough - although equally, some people exercise too much,” said Dr Relton.

“We’re all sitting looking at screens all day or locked in our cars. We know exercise improves a whole range of long term chronic conditions. Diabetes, anxiety, depression and even chronic pain can all be improved by taking more exercise and eating a better diet. But it’s easier said than done.”

Overall, 54 per cent of people in Sheffield reported being overweight or obese, with 45 per cent having a ‘normal’, or healthy, weight - defined as a Body Mass Index of between 18.5 and 25.

However, Dr Relton pointed out that obesity was ‘not just a Sheffield problem’.

“It’s global,” she said.

“We eat too much. Our relationship with food is different to how it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Most of our food is wrapped in plastic from supermarkets. We tend to eat in isolation, quickly and while multi-tasking. We should be more like France. People there take more interest in their food and it’s much more of a social activity. It’s very rare people sit by themselves and eat, or eat while watching a screen.”

She suggested becoming ‘more engaged with food’ by, for instance, growing produce on allotments. “Sheffield’s got a good record of being a very go-ahead city.”

Dr Relton continued: “There’s definitely room for improvement. We’re a rich nation - the fifth richest in the world - and we’ve got all these chronic diseases, and a lot of people are stressed and anxious. The problems we’ve got are not epidemic diseases that you’d die from within a month - like malaria or plague - they’re long-term chronic illnesses. You want long-term solutions, not just short-term quick fixes.”