Report: New research examines attitudes, motivation, and behaviours behind our readiness to manage weight in Northern Ireland

A new study, published by the Institute of Public Health, examined the attitudes, motivations, and behaviours of 2,100 adults in Northern Ireland to better understand what influences an individual’s ability and readiness to manage their weight. 

The analysis identified four distinct groups based on their attitudes towards healthy eating habits and physical activity, as well as their motivation, confidence, and the actions they took to manage their weight. It found that levels of obesity and readiness to change behaviours varied across the four groups. 

The findings of the study may help to inform and develop new public health interventions around weight management by tailoring supports to the needs of each group. Previous population-based interventions tend to target groups with a high Body Mass Index (BMI) only but this new research highlights the importance of considering behavioural factors also, and in particular factors associated with readiness to change. 

These behavioural factors include smoking, alcohol consumption, diet and nutrition, physical activity, general health, mental health and wellbeing, weight control, motivation, intention, confidence, as well as perceptions of influence on own health. 

The study identified the following four groups based on insights into the attitudes, motivations, and priorities of individuals with respect to their weight management behaviours:


Rather than taking a universal or standard approach, the study suggests that each of the four groups is likely to require different messages, supports, and health interventions. 

For example, more targeted supports and priority could be given to people identified in Group 4, who were found to be less motivated to change and were more likely to have mental health concerns or live in a disadvantaged community. 

On the other hand, people identified in Group 3 may require different supports as they were highly motivated but could benefit from more guidance and support on how to maintain the changes they were making. 

The study was based on an analysis of 2017/2018 Health Survey data from Northern Ireland.

Across the globe, rates of obesity have almost tripled since 1975. In Northern Ireland, official data shows that 27% or one in four adults (aged ≥16 years) and around 6% or one in 16 children (aged 2-15 years) were living with obesity in 2019/2020. 

Obesity is a complex disease driven by a range of social, economic and environmental factors. It is a significant risk factor for developing non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and certain types of cancer.

IPH Director of Ageing Research & Development, Professor Roger O’Sullivan, said the findings supported the development of more tailored messaging and interventions: “We recognise that obesity is a major public health issue influenced by a range of social, economic and environmental factors. Our findings focus on personal attitudes, motivation, and behaviours and how they can influence an individual’s ability and readiness to manage weight. We have identified four distinct groups of people, with differing motivations and behaviours, who might benefit from more tailored messaging and supports to meet their individual needs.”

About the analysis:
This study analysed data collected from the Health Survey in Northern Ireland (2017/2018), which is a nationally representative household survey by the Department of Health (NI) that runs on a continuous annual basis. 
The analysis included a sample of 2,100 respondents (16 years+), based on full reporting of Body Mass Index (BMI, kg/m2) measurements [physical measurements were taken of weight (kilograms) and height (metres)].
Data was weighted by age and sex to better represent the make-up of the general population.

Key terms: 

Obesity: Obesity can be defined as an ‘abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health’, however, obesity is often classified as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of ≥30kg/m2.

Overweight: Overweight can be defined as an ‘abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health’, however it is typically defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 kg/m2 to 29.9 kg/m2

Body Mass Index (BMI): BMI is a measure that uses a person’s height and weight to work out if their weight is healthy. The BMI calculation divides an adult’s weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared.

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