The initiative was designed to support people with shared interests. It helped link people up and get them to help each other in being active in their everyday lives, realising that they could still be active even if they were not comfortable with more formal activities, like going to the gym or to fitness or exercise classes.
Activmob allowed community members to suggest an activity ‘mob’, and then supported them to run and organise it themselves.
The development of Activmob has seen three distinct phases:
- 2005 to 2007 – Prototype work with KCC and Design Council
- 2008 to 2010 – Evaluation and development into a sustainable business model
- 2010 to now – Activmob transferred to a CIC (Community Interest Company) whose social conscience supports the Activmob principles
As of September 2010, there were approximately:
- 30 active mobs
- 300 active mobbers
Other benefits include more active citizenship, greater social cohesion and increased mental wellbeing in the communities where Activmob operates.
Leading a sedentary lifestyle is the leading cause of death worldwide, and as a nation the UK is getting less active and less healthy. Tackling low activity levels and related health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, has become a major challenge for the NHS. The Chief Medical Officer’s 2004 report, At least five a week: Evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health, estimated that the cost of physical inactivity in England (including direct costs of treatment for the major lifestyle related disease and the indirect costs caused through sickness absence) is £8.2 billion a year.
According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Taking Part: The National Survey of Culture, Leisure and Sport (2006/07), watching television was the most common leisure activity for over 8 out of 10 men and women in England (84 per cent and 85 per cent respectively). In addition, the 2006 Health Survey for England found that only 40 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women were meeting the physical activity recommendations (taking 30 minutes of at least moderate intensity activity at least 5 days a week).
Conventional responses to tackling low activity levels have included everything from large-scale government campaigns, to paid-for personal gym membership, but so far these have failed to have a big impact on the UK’s physical activity levels.
Kent had been a pilot for local area agreements (LAAs) between the County Council and other public service bodies, and had been involved in promoting preventative approaches to fire, accidents and policing. Building on this experience, in 2005 Kent County Council decided to partner with a team at the Design Council to see if the principle of user-centred design could lead to a new way of encouraging people to exercise.
“This is where a design approach can add most value. Designers view problems through the eyes of the user. They also work in short intensive bursts, looking for insights and ideas that connect to people’s lives.” Chris Vanstone (Design Consultant)
Kent County Council proposed that the Design Council team work with people in and around the Parkwood estate in the deprived area of Maidstone. The team brought together a diverse group of designers, user experience specialists, product designers and branding experts, as well as policy analysts, health care professionals, personal trainers and psychologists to work with the residents of the estate and other local stakeholders.
Activmob aimed to deliver against the Public Service Agreement (PSA) target on physical activity, set in the first ‘Kent Agreement’ (comprising the LAA and the local PSA phase 2, which was active between 2005 and 2008):
- To increase the number of people doing at least half an hour’s exercise, five times a week
The behavioural goals of Activmob were for residents to:
- Get active and stay active
- Make physical activity part of everyday life
- Encourage residents to suggest or start a new mob
Unfortunately, no clear baselines were collected against which to measure these targets.
Secondary and primary research
The Design Council team started by spending time getting a feel for the Parkwood estate area (the pilot site), examining the local demographic and health data and recruiting a group of around 45 residents to work with. A shortlist of potential participants emerged, six of whom were visited in their homes over a two-day period.
During their visit from a Design Council researcher, participants took part in a series of exercises to help establish their relationship with activity and fitness. They were asked to map out a day’s activities as a timeline and choose flashcards depicting activities they currently do, ones they would like to do and ones they would never do.
“We also carried out an activity audit on people’s homes by asking them to show us objects such as disused tennis rackets and bikes, to find out how much activity was actually going on.” Jennie Winhall (Design Council team member)
At the end of the session, researchers spent an hour with participants on an activity that they currently did, hoping to understand what carrying out everyday activities actually meant in terms of organisation and experience.
From these sessions the researchers began to build a picture of the kinds of people living in the Parkwood estate and what their aspirations were in terms of activities.
To complete this picture, the team held a series of workshops with local stakeholders, such as the community support officer, youth club leaders, a local vicar and a representative from Age Concern. This group was also asked to brainstorm ideas for motivating individuals to increase activity.
This initial research showed that for Parkwood residents there were many barriers to being healthy and living an active life, though many of these barriers were based on perceptions rather than actual fact. To be successful, the team would have to find ways to overcome these barriers (real or otherwise) and draw inspiration from those residents who did integrate activity into their everyday lives.
- Although people are aware that exercise is good for them, they can lack the motivation to fit it into their daily lives
- Lack of confidence and self-esteem
- Many were not interested in activity for activity’s sake
- It feels safer to drive than to walk
- Equipment is expensive
- Ill-health and disability leads people to avoid exercise
- People need support to set up activities
- Friends are not physically active
The situations of five of the more active residents helped to uncover the motivating factors that might drive the new initiative. Two residents were motivated by hobbies and interests (archaeology and gardening) that resulted in them being active without feeling like they were actually doing exercise. One of the residents had been thinking of starting a walking group and two residents met regularly with a small group of friends, all of whom suffer from mobility issues of one kind or another.
The team began to see that a successful system for activity might harness people’s existing interests and passions, and could offer groups of like-minded people help to support and motivate one another.
Two key areas of competition for an individual’s own inclination to be active were identified as specifically powerful (especially within deprived communities):
- Social deprivation can mean that there are bigger issues to worry about than where and when a yoga class takes place
- Within these communities the pub can be the strongest social hub and often competes with other activities – the pub represents an informal economy and a community focal point, which is often more important to families than statutory services
Based on the research the team developed the idea of ‘Fitmobs’ – informal, non-hierarchical, self-organising groups of between 2 and 15 people, formed around an activity, with no exclusion on the basis of age. The groups could pursue any activity they liked, as long as it benefited the health and wellbeing of the participants and did not negatively impact on the health and wellbeing of others.
The inspiration for Fitmobs came from the small social groups that the team had learned about on the Parkwood estate.
“We saw a parallel with flash mobs - informal, non-hierarchical groups that come together often just for fun. We felt that the term ‘mobs’ captured the spirit of what we were doing, and it’s a long way from the language of existing healthcare services.” Chris Vanstone (Design Consultant)
Inspiration also came from another surprising source – Tupperware parties.
“Tupperware parties create the social obligation to buy through the motivational potential of small group interaction. The team’s thinking was that getting people into small groups for activity – Fitmobs – would encourage a social commitment to get active and stay active.” Jennie Winhall (Design Council team member)
Informal activity groups can work very well without outside support, but to overcome the barriers perceived by many at Parkwood, the team could see that a surrounding infrastructure of support and some basic rules would help to get groups going and to sustain them into the longer term.
Having collected a wide range of ideas, the team combined the strongest elements of the Fitmobs proposition and presented its ideas for a full prototype to Kent County Council. The Fitmobs concept would work as follows:
- They would be informal self-organising groups of between 2 and 15 people
- People would not be excluded on the basis of age – instead, groups would be formed around a particular activity
- Groups would be able to pursue any activity as long as it benefited the health and wellbeing of participants and did not impact negatively on others
- The groups would be validated by a facilitating body that would provide an online database of registered Fitmobs and information for participants
The next stage of the project in Kent was the development of a working prototype of the proposed Fitmobs concept.
The emphasis was on trying out ideas, making adjustments where necessary and encouraging continuous feedback. Over the next five weeks, the Design Council team facilitated the creation of three ‘mobs’:
- ‘Welliemob’ – A five-strong team of dog walkers
- ‘Backmob’ – A group of older residents who took up gentle exercise under the supervision of a trainer
- ‘Timemob’ – Conducting walking tours of local historical sites of interest
The focus of the initial stage was to learn how mobs could be created and sustained. The team alternated its time, spending a week in the studio developing ideas and a week at Parkwood testing them out.
“The team was not sure what types of mob Parkwood residents would take up. We also added two web designers to help us define the online element, and brought in two graphic and brand designers to work on the identity of the system.” Chris Vanstone (Design Consultant)
In addition, the team recruited a personal trainer to advise on activity and exercise, who soon became a core part of the project as its first ‘mob trainer’.
The first big change to the system was its name. Residents decided that the word ‘fit’ was too much like the phrase ‘keep fit’, so it was changed to the more generic name – Activmob.
The cross-community target audience was initially divided into three sub-groups, with appropriate mobs designed to suit the individual needs of each:
- Those who had always enjoyed healthy levels of activity, but had become inactive through illness
- Those for whom the day-to-day pressures of life made it difficult to find time to exercise
- Those who continue to enjoy a healthy and motivated lifestyle
Residents were recruited to join the very first facilitated mobs, and the team advertised in the local press, through flyers and on the Kent County Council intranet, asking people to set up unfacilitated mobs as well.
It was found that word-of-mouth was the most successful way of advertising Activmob. To help friends and family spread the word about this scheme, the team came up with the idea of a catalogue (which later developed into a magazine), to help explain the idea to others and outline the sort of activities they might want to become involved in. In addition, the team produced Activmob posters that enabled mob leaders to fill in local details while retaining standard Activmob branding. This however was found to be unsuccessful because it put some people off for looking too official.
Motivation and measurement
Once the three facilitated mobs were up and running, the team realised that the first challenge would be to sustain individual motivation. Subsequently two one-day workshops were held, one on motivation and another on feedback, to devise practical solutions.
The motivation workshop included a service designer, public service motivation experts, the Activmob personal trainer and a sports psychologist. The feedback workshop included a holistic health expert, social software experts, an interface designer from Sony, a sports scientist and a statistician from Kent County Council.
The conclusion from these workshops was that goals and rewards needed to be self-selected to facilitate personal motivation. In addition, measurement would need to be relevant to each individual and it was essential to keep any measurement system simple. A complex system would reduce participation and increase cost. For this reason the team’s original idea of health miles (comparable to air miles obtained from frequent plane journeys) to reward activity or improved health could not be used as it would be too complicated and could put mobbers off.
Instead a local GP suggested that the best measure would be one based on whether individuals felt fitter themselves. From this idea, the team developed wellbeing cards on which mobbers could record tangible changes such as improved sleep of increased flexibility. Discount vouchers for local produce and services or personal training would be given upon completion of the cards to reward mobbers for filling them out. This system would both give a personal record of achievements for participants, but also provide a measure of success for the project, enabling Kent County Council and other local authorities to understand the changing lifestyle and health of its residents.
The concept of Activmob was developed to ensure that the methods mix covered the ‘4E’s’:
Enable (make it easy)
- Activmob pilot website (www.activmob.com) – Links people with existing mobs, advertises potential trainers, explains how to start new groups, offers the scheme evaluation tool and provides tools to create opportunities (‘Find-a-Mob’, ‘Suggest-a-Mob’, ‘Start-a-Mob’)
- The Trainer – Helps determine the most appropriate activity for the group and sets the right levels of exertion. The trainer also offers practical advice and motivation. Each self-formed mob can choose their trainer from the Activmob website or can suggest their own trainer. The trainer aims to get the group to the point where they are happy performing the activity themselves
- Train the trainer – Training can be offered to enable mob members to become trainers themselves. This helps to build social capital and sustain mobbing activity
Engage (get people involved)
- Mob ‘motivators’ use their social, motivational and organisational skills to get groups going and keep them going
- Deliberate move away from the language of healthcare professionals
- Word-of-mouth, direct mail and advertising were used to communicate messages, but branded posters were dropped because they looked too ‘official’
Exemplify (lead by example)
- Real-life testimonials are used on the website to exemplify the benefits of joining a mob
- Wellbeing cards were given out for participants to record tangible changes
Encourage (give the right signals)
- Cash incentives were always avoided, but vouchers for discounts on facilities, childcare and travel were offered to mobbers on completion of wellbeing cards
This pilot undertaken in 2005 highlighted a number of lessons for the further implementation of Activmob:
- The small group model made mobs fun, a social occasion and a personal commitment
- Groups provided self-confidence and a sense of security
- While the facilitated mobs tended to mob around things that they were already doing, some of the un-facilitated mobs were built around the attraction of starting something new, such as lunchtime training for a ‘Tesco walk for life’ and trampolining
- There should be a mix of open mobs (anyone can join) and closed mobs (by invitation only)
- The voucher scheme did not take off, so the success of Activmob would need to rest on the other non-financial benefits of the scheme (such as a social way to get active that is designed by mobbers)
Activmob is about working out what is stopping people from doing an activity and then overcoming that barrier, whether by providing training, funding, venues, contacts or simply connecting people up. At its heart is the idea of exchange – that barriers can be overcome if you listen to people and find out what they need.
The Activmob concept aimed to overcome or minimise the barriers to physical activity by promoting the benefits of an active lifestyle:
- People can lack the motivation to fit physical activity into their daily lives – Mobs are designed by mobbers around existing lifestyles, which means that activity is built into daily lives and becomes a convenient option rather than an add-on chore
- Lack of confidence – A mob can be joined with a friend or even set up with a friend, which lowers the hurdle of starting something new. Enhanced vitality and potential weight loss through physical activity can also improve self-esteem in the long run
- It feels safer to drive than to walk – Activmob offers safety in numbers, with specialist trainers offering advice and support to ensure that all activities are safe
- Equipment is expensive – Most of the mob activities do not require any equipment and the ones that do often develop second-hand or lending systems within the mob. Activmob can also help join mobbers up with funding opportunities, so that equipment can be purchased
- Ill-health and disability leads people to avoid exercise – The right kind of activity is designed for the right user to improve long-term health
- People need support to set up activities – Anybody can suggest a mob and if several other people are also interested in the same activity, it is even easier to set up a mob – all you need to do is pick a trainer from the website
- Friends are not physically active – Activmob leads to new friendships and a busier social life, which often leads old friends to join in as well
An assessment of the work conducted in and around the Parkwood estate highlighted that the Activmob concept not only helped increase physical activity, but had the unintentional outcomes of building social capital, active citizenship and increased mental wellbeing.
“I suppose the first three years we were looking at whether this was a concept that improved people’s ability, opportunity and motivation to take physical exercise. The answer was a qualified yes. We really discovered that the use of physical exercise as a way of initiating a conversation with people and initiating engagement with people had massive unintended and unexpected side effects and other outcomes, which became all about social inclusion, about developing competence in communities, about developing social capital. That led us into, for the last two years, a very different approach. Still around Activmob, still around physical activity, but more around activity within communities but not necessarily physical activity.” (Mark Lemon, Head of Policy)
As a result of the unintended outcomes from the pilot, the original segmentation model was amended. Feedback suggested that segmenting according to the amount of exercise carried out was not effective, as Activmob not only increases physical activity, but also support users to do social, everyday activities, but in a way that is healthy.
As the programme moved forward a new segmentation structure was used, based on the actual location of the people involved in a mob:
- Mobs in small-scale communities
- Workplace and work community interventions
- Mobs for the socially excluded, including those with mental health issues and disabilities
During 2009 and early 2010, the Activmob continued to be incubated by the Kent Public Health Department. It was during this time an associate who had previously worked on Activmob undertook the task to develop a business case for the project, building on the principles developed during the prototyping phase in Parkwood and explored a sustainable future business mode.
In March 2010, Activmob was successfully established as a community interest company. Its purpose is to promote health, well being and active citizenship with a particular focus on socially disadvantaged individuals and communities.
One year on, Activmob CIC has gained various commissions from local authorities and public health. These have included working with vulnerable families on community budgets, older people and their housing aspirations, a community and their views on smoking and engaging people with mental health issues to participate in activity.
The philosophy and approach borne from the original Activmob principles have continued to be developed and applied today in all projects.
An Activmob project was implemented in Betteshanger (locally titled ABC - Active Betteshanger Community). This was started following a request from a local county councillor to the Kent Public Health Department about encouraging more healthy living in the village (a former mining area of Kent). This project also had more holistic aims of increasing social capital and active citizenship alongside increasing levels of physical activity.
An organisation associated with Activmob, Dynamic Therapy, was commissioned to survey the local community and establish what activities they would like to take part in and identify any obstacles to their involvement. This involved door-to-door surveys, questionnaires, a children’s forum and a young person’s forum. A meeting was then held with the Community Centre Committee to provide feedback from the community, which included:
- Walking into the club – it feels private
- Community centre open only at certain times
- Is the community centre only for ex-miners?
- Community centre feels old fashioned and outdated
- Tea dances sometimes cancelled, maybe due to private bookings
- Perception that residents in the circle cannot hire the hall
- Difficulties in accessing the community centre keys
It was clear that the main community asset, the local community centre, was underused and not viewed positively by parts of the local community. One of the objectives of the project was to establish whether the community centre could become a better facility for the surrounding area, and subsequently increase the physical activity of residents and improve wellbeing.
During the series of meetings and workshops with people from the Betteshanger community, it was decided that a participatory film project would be set up to give Betteshanger’s younger population an opportunity to give views about their community.
Billy, Heidi, Jack and Luke, young residents from Betteshanger, and the film crew worked for two days on the film. The film was then shown at an open forum where the community discussed how the community centre could be improved and what mobs should be started. As a result a number of activities were started, including: a gardening mob; a kickboxing mob; a karate mob; a dog walking mob; a cooking mob; an aerobics mob; and a swimming mob. The centre has benefited from increased income from room hire and new members, and the centre has since been renovated.
“This is how the project has changed. As opposed to delivering something that people can utilise in order to get more active, what we’re really doing now is finding out from the community how they would best see the sorts of resources they need delivered in order to deal with the issues they face.” (Mark Lemon, Head of Policy)
Following a research project in Parkwood by the Social Innovation Lab for Kent, Activmobs was engaged to work with both them and residents, to develop two initiatives residents had wanted to explore; Bulk Buying and Time banking.
This scheme enables residents to buy items in bulk that are either too expensive or bulky at a convenient location in the area.
A core group comprising residents, local shop owners and representatives from Maidstone Housing Trust and the Parkwood Healthy Living Centre, was formed and met once a week to plan how the bulk buying project would evolve.
Since then the residents who were part of the core team have taken ownership of running and setting up of the bulk buying project. The project (named ‘R Shop’) currently sells bulk bought produce from its base, a community room in Bellwood Primary School. Bellwood donated the room, which was a disused kitchen, to the project and the team refurbished it with help from a local company. The team has also set up a Facebook profile under the name of 'Parkwood Bulk Buy'.
This scheme allows people to earn credits for the time they spend volunteering or helping others. Credits can then be spent in a variety of ways, either on time or tangible goods.
As of September 2010, there were approximately:
- 30 active mobs
- 300 active mobbers
- Bulk buying – 164 customers
- Time banking – Currently 40 people exchanging their voluntary time
- Newsletter mob – Aims to give the community voice and is written in their language about things they want to know. Currently on its third edition, the newsletter is created by 10 to 15 residents and gets delivered via the time banking scheme to 2,000 households and businesses in the area
- Aerobics – 60 people attending
- Cookery book – Share signature dishes in a community book
- Little Munchkins mums and dads groups
- Coffee mornings
- Community gardening
- Improved relationships, friendships, beliefs and confidence, and increased social capital
- Increased opportunities for involvement, peer–to-peer inspiration and support, and active citizenship
- Increased knowledge of what is available and how to do new things
- A community facility run by and for the community with a programme of activity developed by a community steering group
- Improved awareness and ideas about how to design service delivery around the actual needs of residents
- Wider range of opportunities for resident involvement
- A school that is playing an enhanced role as a community hub
- Strengthened links with the local council and other providers, raised understanding of what people are doing, and demonstrating that people can do things for themselves
"Being involved with Activmob has given me a sense of community and I have and am continuing to make new friends. Some people may call Parkwood an estate, I feel it is becoming more of a community and Activmob is helping people come together as a community." (Parkwood resident)
Increased physical activity and new activities
- Over 100 members involved in new activities
Reconnection of club to community
- Positive response of community centre committee to community criticism
- Membership up by 50 per cent (including many ‘non-miners’), representing a change of attitude to the community centre
- ‘Mob Motivators’ prepared to work for the good of the wider community and stand on the community centre committee
Social and community capital
- Built community spirit and social cohesion
- Intergenerational dialogue is now possible - Young people are now involved in decision making
- A change of attitude regarding resources
- Increased confidence in the club, and the community has seen a vastly increased success rate of grant application - in 2007, 14 grants were applied for and only 4 were awarded, giving a success rate of 29 per cent, while in 2009, there were 15 successful grants amounting to £51,000, and the area won a £6,200 award from the Coalfield Regeneration Trust)
- Empowered and active community able to identify issues
- Preparedness to re-engage with the District Council and other stakeholders
The findings from the original Activmob pilot were presented at the National Health Promotion Conference in 2008. Since then developments and findings have been shared with the Kent and Medway Public Health Network and with the Kent Partnership.
Since the programme became an independent social enterprise (community interest company) – Activmob CIC – in 2010, it has developed a wide variety of models based upon engagement, insight gathering and service design to enable sustainability of both itself and the support it gives to the Activmob that are created.
Work in and around the Parkwood estate is continuing and the time banking scheme is being further developed, including the creation of a ‘Parkwood dollar’, which was printed in January 2011 to aid the exchange of time spent volunteering. ActivMob are also currently involved in projects that include smoking, mental health, community budgets and housing.
- Wellbeing cards proved unpopular with mobbers, but they may form the backbone of new mobs that work with people with mental health or exclusion issues and could form a powerful tool for health professionals
- Evaluation of the project was hampered by lack of initial baseline measures
- There is a need to engage Health Workers, Occupational Therapists, GPs and PCTs – These groups responded negatively to Activmob at the beginning, but further work to explain the programme and share its successes with these stakeholders has built their confidence in the programme
- It is crucial that ownership of a new service lies with mobbers and that it is a system that meets their needs and desires
- Mob activities need not be traditional group activities
- People define themselves more by lifestyle than by age, so there should be no restriction on the age range
- Activmob should clarify the benefits of exercise through real-life stories and testimonials
- ‘Activity’ need not necessarily mean something physical – Depression can be warded off through social interaction, so low or even no activity mobs are still valid for preventative healthcare
- The Activmob concept can be used to increase social capital, active citizenship and social inclusion, because the model works well at empowering groups of people