Aims: Peer health champions are suggested as an important component of multilevel workplace interventions to promote healthy behaviours such as physical activity. There is accumulating quantitative evidence of their effectiveness but as yet little exploration of why and how champions influence the behaviour of their peers. The current study explores the role of peer physical activity champions (PPACs) in influencing colleagues’ physical activity behaviour from the perspectives of both champions and colleagues.
Methods: Seven months after the introduction of a workplace physical activity programme in 17 small and medium sized enterprices (SMEs) two focus groups were held with PPACs and four with programme participants. Focus groups were semi-structured and topics covered included: the influence of PPACs and other colleagues on their physical activity, characteristics of an effective PPAC and feelings about the PPAC role. Data were analysed using inductive thematic analysis.
Results: Three overarching themes emerged: how PPACs encourage physical activity; valuable PPAC characteristics; and sustaining motivation for the PPAC role. Both direct encouragement from PPACs and facilitation of wider physical activity supportive social networks within the workplace encouraged behaviour change. Physical activity behaviour change is a delicate subject and it was important that PPACs provided enthusiastic and persistent encouragement without seeming judgemental. Being a physical activity role model was also a valuable characteristic. The PPACs found it satisfying to see positive changes in their colleagues who had become more active. However, colleagues often did not engage in suggested activities and PPACs required resilience to maintain personal motivation for the role despite this.
The results indicate that it is feasible to incorporate PPACs into SME based physical activity interventions. Given the importance that participants attached to feeling part of a group of individuals with a common aim of increasing their physical activity, it is recommended that PPAC training includes suggestions for facilitating social connections between colleagues. Sensitivity is required when initiating and engaging in conversations with colleagues about increasing their physical activity and therefore brief motivational interviewing training may be helpful for PPACs. Programmes should ensure PPACs themselves are provided with social support, especially from others in the same role, to help sustain motivation for their role. These findings will be useful to health-promotion professionals developing workplace health programmes. Future research should explore the processes by which peer health champions facilitate changes in a range of health behaviours to identify common and behaviour specific recommendations.