Let’s not beat about the bush – there’s a childhood obesity crisis in the UK and it’s not getting any better. More than one in three children are now leaving primary school overweight or obese and the problem is worse for those living in deprivation.
Obesity not only costs the NHS £6.1 Billion – yes, BILLION – per year, it has real, drastic effects on children’s life chances. The hard fact is that obese children are far more likely to suffer from serious disease into adulthood, and to die prematurely. As the government itself says: “The health and well-being of our children critically determines their opportunities in life. Today, nothing threatens that more than childhood obesity.”
Clearly something needs to change and the government recognises this, albeit belatedly, having just published ‘Chapter 2’ of its Childhood Obesity Strategy. The question is, what needs to change and are they getting it right?
The strategy – like most media discussion about this topic – is heavily focussed on food. We know that diet is part of the picture and it is right that food companies are targeted, but obesity is actually caused by an “energy imbalance” in many children’s lives – they are simply consuming more calories than they are burning off. Physical activity is the other side of the coin and the strategy does recognise that, but the solutions offered seem to misunderstand both children and the underlying root of the problem.
Only 1 in 5 children in the UK gets the minimum recommended 1hr a day of physical activity. That means 80% are not getting this. Why? Are they too lazy? Not getting enough PE at school? Not interested in sport? Too screen-addicted?? Or could it be that they lack the opportunity for everyday physical activity – walking, cycling, playing out – most children had a generation ago as part of their normal lives? As anyone who has spent any time with children knows, they like to move! Teachers know this more than anyone and spend half their lives trying to keep them to sit still. In particular, they like to play and move freely, rather than being told to do star jumps, run around a playground or queue up for their turn to kick a goal.
But in order to do this, they need an environment that makes it possible. They do not have the same “choices” as adults and this includes the ability to be active. Specifically, in order to walk, cycle and play out, children need safer streets, and this is where the government’s strategy is lacking. It does acknowledge the existence of “an environment that makes it harder for children and their families to make healthy choices” and even mentions the need to consider “the way our towns and cities are designed to ensure greater active travel or safe physical activity”. But there are no proposals for how this might happen and a reluctance to face the big issue – the streets and neighbourhoods where children live do not allow them to be as active as they would like to be, because they are dominated by cars.
We already know that when you close a street to cars and open it for play, children are up to 5 times more active. We also know that the main reason parents are reluctant to let their children walk or cycle independently is concern about the very real danger from traffic. And yet still the focus seems to be on training children to keep themselves safe and “promoting” walking and cycling, rather than tackling the source of the problem. It’s great that there is going to be more money for cycle training in schools – but of limited value without also committing to make streets safer. However well trained, no parent wants to send their child cycling off into busy, dangerous roads.
The government says this is the “start of a conversation”. We hope that parents will get involved in that conversation, letting the government know what their children need in order to be able to move around freely and independently. It will take a lot of political will and investment to make our streets and neighbourhoods safe for children to walk, to cycle and play out but as the government itself says, “the scale of action we are seeking is justified by the profound health effects of childhood obesity”. Let’s hope they now look beyond limiting sugar and promoting sport and take bold action to give children what they really need: safe space on their doorstep.