Healthy city kids excel over country cousins

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The Independent Online
Sarah Jane Cox walks to school every day, plays football, goes swimming after school and is not allowed to eat sweets often. Alex Holloway gets a lift in to school, names his favourite meal as beefburgers, plays on his Nintendo and plays football. Sarah Jane lives in urban Newcastle. Alex in rural Dorset.

While the country may sound like an ideal place to bring up children, a new survey shows that city kids may have healthier lifestyles than their country cousins.

Around 100 children aged between seven and eleven from Newcastle-upon- Tyne and Evershot, west Dorset, took part in the research for BBC Watchdog HealthCheck, filling in a two week diary of their eating and exercise habits.

Children brought up in the country reported more illness, took less exercise and consumed more animal fat than their city counterparts.

While Dorset children go by car or bus to or from school, most of those from Newcastle walked - in fact all except one of the city girls walked to school every morning.

However, when they did walk the country children tended to go longer distances, with a third walking two miles or more to and from school.

"Many children don't even experience the equivalent of a 10 minute brisk walk in their normal week," said Professor Neil Armstrong of the department of exercise science at Exeter University.

"What this survey has shown is how few children actually walk or cycle to school. This used to be an important part of children's' lifestyles. It has been lost and we are not compensating for it."

Sarah Jane, 10, walks a half-mile to school with her mother, brother and sister. She and her friends enjoy skipping or PE - basketball or gymnastics. She swims after school and plays football one day a week.

In comparison Alex, also 10, who lives on a farm, gets a lift into school every day. He likes sports in school, particularly football, and occasionally goes fishing, but not very often.

While both groups watch about the same amount of television, - Sarah Jane says Coronation Street and Emmerdale are her favourites while Alex prefers Children's BBC - Dorset children were more likely to play with computers.

The most common kind of illnesses were colds and flu, although both Alex and Sarah Jane had recently succumbed to chicken pox.

Nearly double the number of children in the country suffered from asthma and more Dorset girls reported suffering from asthma than any other group. Country children also visited the doctor more than those who lived in the city.

And nearly 45 per cent of Dorset children were on some kind of medication - usually antibiotics - compared to only a third of those in Newcastle.

The most significant dietary findings revealed that in Dorset - a traditional farming area - children had "significantly higher" intakes of saturated fat than Newcastle - differences due to consumption of meat and dairy products.

But in both cases children had unhealthy diets. Children in Newcastle had a noticeable lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and therefore lower levels of vitamin C. Canteen supervisors at Hilton Primary School, Newcastle, said they had been reduced to putting posters of the Spice Girls on the wall claiming the stars liked carrots "as a little bit of encouragement" to make the children eat their greens.

Salt levels in both schools were far above government recommendations (averaging 2876 mg/day when the recommendation is 1200 mg/day) and sugar consumption was double the Government recommendation - it should not be more than 11 per cent in energy, yet in Dorset children got 23 per cent of their energy from sugar, 2 per cent more than in Newcastle.

"Everyone of these children is going to grow up to be an adult and what they eat now is going to influence their health later in life," said Dr Michael Nelson, department of nutrition and dietetics at King's College, London. "If there is too much saturated fat it increases their risk of heart disease. If there is too much salt it's going to increase their risk of high blood pressure and if they don't eat enough fruit and vegetables we know this is going to increase their risk of cancer in years to come."

Both groups of children however, said they would prefer to live in the country, seeing it as cleaner and more peaceful. And both Alex and Sarah Jane thought they were healthy.

"I think I do enough exercise. I'd like to go running with my dad when he goes but he says I'll never keep up now," said Sarah Jane. "I think I'm healthy. I'm quite skinny," added Alex.

t The full results of the survey are presented on Watchdog HealthCheck tonight at 7pm on BBC1.

Town v Country

School trips

Country: Majority by car/bus Town: Most walk

Meat eaters

Country: 95 per cent Town: 83 per cent

On medication

Country: 44 per cent

Town: 33 per cent

Asthma sufferers

Country: 12 per cent

Town: 7 per cent

Sport in school

Country: 90 per cent

Town: 80 per cent

Sport at home

Country: 75 per cent

Town: 83 per cent

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