Survival of the fattest

They don't walk to school, they don't play games and their favourite occupation is watching telly: the result is mass obesity, truly a growing problem.
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The Independent Online
IT'S THAT time of year again. Having consumed many units of alcohol and several million calories above what is strictly necessary to keep body and soul together, we're all picking up the tab for seasonal over- indulgence. Chances are you're dusting off last year's list of exacting new year resolutions, planning that crash diet and just off to renew gym membership.

Long may your good intentions last, but perhaps it's not just your own health you should be worried about. If your kids spent Christmas slumped on the sofa in front of the TV, gorging themselves on chocolate Santas and selection packs, new bikes lying unused in the shed, they may well be more in need of a radical change of lifestyle than you are.

Because, according to a recent Government survey, our children are a pretty unhealthy bunch. "The Health of Young People 1995-97", as the survey is called, is something of a misnomer: of the 20,000 it studied, no less than a third of those aged 16-24 were found to be overweight or obese. Today's youngsters are too lazy and gluttonous for their own good, it concluded, and present one of the greatest challenges to public health.

The survey results, however, come as no surprise to nutritionists and exercise experts, who are becoming increasingly concerned about young people's eating and exercise habits. "Obesity is a growing problem," says Dr Barbara Livingstone, lecturer in human nutrition at the University of Ulster. "Children's body composition is changing, and it does appear that children are getting larger, with more fat at the expense of muscle tissue. And there's no reason to suggest that that trend will reverse."

And, for once, it's not just parents who are to blame; schools, too, are failing to encourage children to adopt a more healthy lifestyle. Last October, many came under attack from the Government for the increasing proportion of junk food in their school meals. Around 3 million children have a school meal every day, and for a large proportion this is their main meal. But too many are filling up on burgers, chips and cakes, says the Government, which has drawn up the first set of nutritional guidelines in 18 years, stressing the need to offer more variety and balance.

"School meals are a real minefield," says Livingstone. "Schools are in the business of making ends meet and tend to supply food that the children want to eat. Many do make an effort to encourage better eating habits and are working under enormous constraints, but nevertheless there is a lot more that they can do to encourage appropriate food choices."

However, with many pupils now able to go out to the shops at lunch time, reforming school meals may have a limited effect. And, ironically, it seems that when it comes to weight gain what goes in may not be as crucial as the energy subsequently expended. Despite the nation's expanding waistline, we are actually eating no more calories now than we did two decades ago; nutritionists agree that inactivity, rather than diet, is the key element in obesity.

Take walking to school. In the mid-1970s, 72 per cent of children aged five-10 walked to school; now just 59 per cent do. Teenagers are even lazier - another government report found that, in the decade to 1996, 11- to 15-year-olds had reduced their number of walks by 29 per cent - double the fall for the population as a whole.

This finding is backed by research by Professor Neil Armstrong, who measured the activity of 1,000 children aged five-16 by monitoring their heart rate. Although boys are generally more active than girls, he found, activity decreases through primary school for both sexes, falling dramatically when they go on to secondary level.

"A lot of activities that were normal for children 10-20 years ago have been removed," he says, "With so few children walking to school now, many do not even experience the equivalent of a 10-minute brisk walk in the week - an important part of children's lifestyles that has been lost." Indeed, research carried out at the Dun Clinical Nutrition Centre, in Cambridge, in 1997 estimated that a child walking up to two miles a day to and from school would have used up about half a day's food intake over a week.

The same is also true for cycling, says Armstrong. Although more children own bicycles, fewer ride them, particularly girls; while one in three boys with bicycles can ride on the roads, only one in nine girls is allowed to do so.

However, while few schools would view how children arrive at school as being under their jurisdiction, what happens after they go through the gates is also under question. Physical education has dropped too far down the curriculum, says Armstrong.

"Physical education in schools has been squeezed more and more since the national curriculum, especially with the introduction of the literacy and numeracy hours. PE time is going down, there's a fall in the number of qualified PE teachers, and schools are selling off playing fields for development. There may be a recommended minimum of two hours PE a week, but that's only a recommendation - the amount of time children spend in physical education is totally up to the school."

But the problem is not just quantity, but quality, says Susan Ebb, the head of nutrition and health at the Dun centre, which has a facility for researching childhood obesity. Schools are focusing too much on team games, which are often not the best activities for later life, she feels.

"Schools have got to get children going, encouraging them to be more active as children, but also setting up the habits for life," she says, "Schools like competitive activities - they get kudos from them, for instance - but girls especially hate team games. Many prefer individual activities such as aerobics.

"After all, not many people play hockey, netball or rugby in their thirties, but they may swim or go to exercise classes - we need to see much more emphasis on activities that carry through into adulthood."

Like many observers, Ebb believes that education for life should embrace health as well as employability if we are to avoid a future population plagued by chronic illness. "The problem is that people tend to get fatter as they get older.

"While children's innate fitness tends to keep them healthy, if you come into adulthood already overweight, it is extremely worrying to think where you will be in 50 years' time. And it's so difficult to treat overweight adults, because it involves changing eating and exercise habits which are by then deeply ingrained.

"Everyone - parents, schools, health professionals - has got to take on board that we must improve the quality of life of our children. We can't afford to ignore it any longer. We have got to put good nutrition and exercise back into their lives."

Suddenly people are waking up to what is going on, says Ebb, and it's not a moment too soon.

WHAT CHILDREN SAY ABOUT PE

`I do like PE, the theory and practical, but I wish we did more and other stuff like martial arts. That would be really useful.' (Simon, 15)

`I hate games. I try and get out of it as often as I can.' (Tasha, 14)

`Football's the worst. It's outside and I get muddy. And it's always freezing too.' (Jonathan, 13)

`We have to wear short skirts and a matching top for PE. It's horrible if it's cold and you think all the boys are looking at you. Why can't we do music and dance instead? That would be cool.' (Holly, 15)

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO HELP?

A US study found a strong inverse relationship between television and losing weight. Children whose viewing is restricted often find something more active to do.

Encourage your children to walk or cycle to school. If you are concerned about levels of traffic and safety, lobby your council to provide safe routes.

The key role model for children is Mum, says Professor Armstrong. Children with an active mother tend to be more active than average.

Remember that physical activity is the best investment in young people's health for life.

WHAT CAN SCHOOLS DO?

Take a hard look at your PE programme. Is it fostering a positive attitude to being active, or putting kids off physical activity for life? Are you focusing on all the children and not just the most talented 3- 4 per cent? Do you offer alternatives to team games, such as aerobics, aqua fit or more co-operative activities? Could you offer more activities at lunchtime?

Something as elementary as the PE kit can put a lot of children, especially girls, off games. Short skirts, in particular, may make them feel self- conscious and can be pretty chilly too.

The main aim for school PE is to help to develop a good foundation of motor skills. Skills such as throwing, kicking, and catching, enable children to enjoy success with activities and sports in later life.

School meals are important because of the kind of habits they foster and the messages children receive about a healthy diet.

Finding other ways to deal with the school run will ease traffic congestion and everyone's conscience. Encourage parents to leave the car at home or, failing that, to organise more lift shares.

THE FATS OF LIFE

Overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults.

Obesity raises the risk of heart disease.

Slight obesity increases the risk of diabetes.

Encouraging physical activity is the best way to ensure life-long health.

Children who overeat are more likely to develop cancer in later life.

Fatness is linked to early menstruation, a risk for hormone influenced cancer.

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