Childhood obesity obsession masks fitness 'time bomb'

Nearly half Year 11 pupils are unfit says 'frightening' study, sparking calls for action

Britain's "national obsession" with obesity is creating a potential public-health crisis by neglecting the growing numbers of unfit schoolchildren, experts are warning. Declining child-fitness levels are being overshadowed by obesity targets, leaving schoolchildren at increased risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, according to researchers.

By the age of 15, children are five times more likely to be unfit than obese, according to the first study to compare rates of obesity and fitness among British schoolchildren.

The alarming figures are fuelling calls for fitness tests in schools to identify children at risk.

Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, former Chief Medical Officer, last night warned: "There is a risk that tunnel vision on childhood obesity will mean cardiovascular fitness is ignored. Being fat shortens life but so does being unfit and of normal weight."

The study sampled 8,500 pupils, aged 10 to 16, from 24 schools in the East of England. The children involved were measured for their body mass index (BMI) and made to do 20-metre shuttle runs to test cardiorespiratory fitness.

Researchers found that while more than one in 10 (11 per cent) of 11- to 16-year-olds are obese, a far higher proportion – more than one in five (20-plus per cent) – are unfit. One in four obese children has good physical fitness, and one in five children with normal BMI has a low fitness level.

And while levels of obesity fell from 13 per cent of 10-year-olds to 8 per cent of 15-year-olds, the proportion of unfit children soared from 15 per cent of 10-year-olds to more than 40 per cent of those aged 15, according to the study.

"Our data on older children show a drop in obesity levels throughout secondary-school children... Unfortunately the results show that poor fitness, which is a much better indicator of overall health than BMI, increases dramatically," said Dr Gavin Sandercock, of the University of Essex, who led the research. He added: "The national obsession with children's weight... may be leading us away from a much bigger problem – their poor levels of fitness."

The findings, presented at the annual conference of the British Association of Sports and Exercise Sciences (Bases) this month, will appear in the December edition of the Journal of Sports Sciences.

"The fact that nearly half of Year 11 pupils are unfit by the time they leave school is frightening, as this is likely to get worse when they stop doing PE – it is creating a potential public-health time bomb," warned Dr Sandercock.

Children with a normal BMI who are unfit face greater health risks than those who are overweight but fit, say experts. Yet schoolchildren are only measured for their BMI, and there is no systematic evaluation of their fitness.

Professor Mitch Blair, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there was no time to waste: "As this important study suggests, we need to rethink how we use values such as BMI for predicting long-term health .... Being thin is not necessarily the same as being fit, and we need to re-examine how we measure children's fitness, for example by piloting a standardised measurement strategy in schools."

Sir Liam Donaldson, chair of health policy at Imperial College London, said: "I strongly urge the Government to pilot test comprehensive fitness testing in schools" – repeating a recommendation he made in 2009 which the Government has yet to act upon.

The study comes amid mounting concern over the health of Britain's children. Nearly half (49 per cent) of seven-year-olds fail to meet the Government's minimum recommended level of one hour of exercise a day, according to research published in the medical journal BMJ Open last month.

The health risks faced by unfit children are part of a wider problem. Last week the World Heart Federation warned that most Britons (67 per cent) fail to manage even 30 minutes of brisk walking a day – putting themselves at greater risk of ill health.

Dr Kathryn Taubert, the federation's chief science officer, said: "Paying attention to how much we walk should be as simple as watching what we eat. By reaching the recommended minimum 30 minutes of moderate exercise, which includes brisk walking, at least five days a week, many premature deaths can be prevented."

And Dr Keith Tolfrey, of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, said: "Low fitness , particularly cardiorespiratory fitness, is equally, if not more, important than obesity in young people."

In a statement, a government spokesperson said: "We know that too many children are overweight so it is vital that children exercise regularly. All schools should ensure that pupils have a strong understanding of personal fitness and are free to decide how to judge this as part of their PE lessons."

Primary schools are being given £300m of ring-fenced funding over the next two years to improve PE and sport and help all pupils to develop healthy, active lifestyles, they added.

Recognising that simply slimming fat children through healthy eating is not the answer, the Government recently launched a Change4Life campaign in a bid to encourage people to get more active.

Professor Blair, a consultant paediatrician and expert on child public health , said that healthy eating and exercise are "essential life skills" and "need to be seen as important as reading, writing and maths.

"Until we get this right, the growing issue of obesity and decrease in fitness is only going to get worse."

Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

    £23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

    Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

    £14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

    Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower