Through his organization, RedBranch, David Egan is empowering a generation of young people in Ireland to choose healthier lifestyles by changing their attitudes towards food and exercise and encouraging schools to adopt policies that support these changes.
The New Idea
David is working to change young people’s behavior not by telling them what to do, but rather by helping them to understand the implications of their lifestyle choices. Through RedBranch, he has highlighted the misleading communication techniques used by the food and beverage industry to better educate kids about the consequences of their eating habits. He uses this technique to change prevailing attitudes, and eventually behaviors of young people as they relate to both diet and exercise, and it is this educational basis that serves as the foundation for his broader healthy schools program. A healthy environment is just as critical as personal choices to achieve successful lifestyle behavior change. Therefore, in addition to providing parents, children and teachers with the knowledge and tools they need to ensure that healthy choices are made available, RedBranch is also helping them advocate for changes in school policies, curricula, canteens, vending machines and school shops, and in the variety and quality of physical activities made available. In building the capacity of young people and parents alike and pushing for changes in school programs, David has successfully introduced healthy food suppliers, fruit micro-businesses, and alternative sports providers to schools across Ireland.
An increasing number of children in Ireland are making poor lifestyle choices resulting in chronic health problems. Only 19 percent of Irish children eat fruit or vegetables more than once a day, while 39 percent eat sweets on a daily basis and 26 percent consume soft drinks. On top of these unhealthy eating habits, just under one third of children achieve the minimum recommended amount of physical activity. These factors have all contributed to an increase in the prevalence of obesity in Ireland. The health risks associated with obesity are dramatic, including an increased risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions.
Government and citizen sector-led campaigns have failed to tackle this troubling reality because they have been unsuccessful in removing recognised barriers to healthy lifestyle choices, including a lack of education about health-related issues. For example, few people understand the risks associated with excess consumption of soft drinks: A problem that could be remedied by governmental promotion of fruits and vegetables in such a way that innovatively communicates health benefits rather than guidelines. Traditionally, the top down approach of simply telling young people what to eat has not proven to be effective.
The second barrier that existing organisations have failed to address is the important role that children’s environments play in providing healthy alternatives. The majority of school canteens and shops in Ireland do not offer adequate healthy choices, with chocolate being the most widely available foodstuff. Successive government campaigns have failed to make healthy lifestyle choices available. A high profile celebrity-led campaign in the U.K. is having some success in making canteen food healthier, but young generations have not learned why they should change their lifestyle choices, and so they often decide not to.
Finally, most Irish schools continue to offer only a limited range of physical activity options based on traditional competitive team sports, causing increasing numbers of young people to drop out of physical activity all together. Twenty percent of secondary schools in Ireland have no physical exercise teacher and 40 percent of primary schools have adopted a no-run policy in the playground at playtime. The declining rate of physical activity is having obvious, lasting consequences.
The Red Branch Knights are one of the most famous warrior groups in Irish Celtic mythology, renowned for their physical strength, health, courage, and wisdom. It is apt, then, that David chose to name an organization aimed at empowering young people, parents and schools to make healthy lifestyle choices after these Knights. Through RedBranch, David has adopted a dual strategy focused on education and environment.
In order to bring about lasting behavior change, one must first understand the extent of the problem. With that in mind, David has worked through RedBranch to conduct lifestyle surveys with thousands of young people across forty schools. Resources and templates developed by the organization are now used in thirty schools, and many of the insights, tools and resources they use are disseminated through their website, which receives roughly 130,000 visits per month. In order to further educate the public, David has organized education workshops for over 25,000 key stakeholders, with the intent of empowering and encouraging pro-active decision making among young people.
Even when attitudes change, it is critical to ensure that the environment also changes to facilitate the sustained adoption of healthy behaviors. In other words, there is little point encouraging a young person to choose an apple over a bar of chocolate if there is no apple available. RedBranch has enacted several strategies to help schools create healthy lifestyle environments. First, they conduct school audits and lifestyle surveys to understand the needs and opportunities for change. Once this initial needs assessment is performed, RedBranch connects schools with suppliers that can help with the transition to a health-promoting environment. In 60 percent of schools in the test region, soft drink vending machines have been replaced with water vending machines, often at the urging of the student body. Additionally, school fruit breaks have been introduced in primary schools, and student-led fruit micro-businesses in secondary schools where students sell fruit to peers with profits financing new physical exercise alternatives. The results of these programs have been impressive: In one test school, the fruit micro-business has increased daily fruit consumption from 18 percent to 38 percent, with profits financing hip hop classes for 50 percent of the student population.
David has taken on a similar approach to tackle the issue of low participation in physical activities. RedBranch first determines what the student population interests, and then finds suppliers that can help the school deliver, whether through yoga, power walking, boxing, or hip hop classes. The results have clearly shown that when the students choose the activity, participation levels rise. RedBranch also helps schools re-establish active playgrounds by aiding them in overcoming insurance restrictions, and by empowering parents in particular to lead in the creation of active playgrounds.
David has experimented with different techniques and strategies in several test schools over the past four years with varying degrees of success, and as his organization’s reach has spread across Ireland, he has refined the model along the way. Demand for RedBranch is being created through word of mouth amongst parents and school principals, and their focus in the next three years will be to further refine the model to a point where it is easily replicable on a national level through government support.
David was born and raised to an Irish immigrant family in London in 1968. He excelled in school, becoming the first member of his extended family to reach University, where he studied biotechnology at Kings College before becoming a professional martial arts instructor. One of his first entrepreneurial experiences was launching and running a number of martial arts clubs in disadvantaged communities across London: Something he pursued for ten years. In 1994, David returned to college to study Sports Science at Brunel University in London where he strengthened his interest in physiology. He accepted a PhD studentship at Brunel in 1998, studying the thermodynamics of exercise.
In 1999, David joined the National Coaching and Training Centre (NCTC) at the University of Limerick as an Exercise Physiologist. His work there involved the scientific support of elite-level Olympic athletes, many of whom became world-renowned. Frustrated by old methodologies, David worked with the athletes on a myriad lifestyle factors including nutrition, health, sleep, stress management, environmental factors, training, and rest strategies. This holistic approach was innovative in an Irish context and focused on the “empowered athlete”—where individual athletes, rather than coaches, are taught to understand performance and health issues and respond correctly to their own bodily signals.
In 2004, the school David’s four children attended, asked him to present a workshop to parents on healthy eating and exercise. It was here that David saw first hand the poor lifestyle habits Irish children had adopted, with many eating unhealthy diets and participating in no physical activities. A child in one of the schools David has worked with was hospitalised with scurvy, demonstrating the seriousness of the problem.
Working with kids put David’s family history into stark perspective: Of his Father’s ten siblings, six died from lifestyle related heart diseases and cancers, which presented an accurate reflection of the national statistics. David felt that he could use his experience to help children develop healthier habits and break the cycle of chronic illness. As a result, he initiated RedBranch as a voluntary program with local schools and colleagues from NCTC.
After working for two years of gaining further insight into school and health, David left NCTC to pursue RedBranch on a full time basis in 2006.