The day before getting herself into a sticky situation over comments made on Twitter, the Shadow Health Secretary, Dianne Abbot, was discussing the latest obesity figures that suggest more than one in five primary children in London are obese by the time they leave primary school (21.9%), which is higher than anywhere else in the country: the national average is 19%.
I have been working with primary school children for the past 17 years and I have plenty of visual evidence which supports the abundance of research into rising obesity levels. This observation sits interestingly alongside the corresponding deterioration in physical literacy levels which means that children may have difficulty actually “throwing” a temper tantrum or “turning” their nose up by the year 2050.
Surely we need to see more research and investigation into possible solutions to the obvious issue than repeated reminders that the problem is “growing” out of control. I would argue that most people are aware that the population is getting bigger and much of the damage is done during childhood years. The next stage on the road to physical recovery is the introduction of direct action that has a realistic chance of being a catalyst for sustainable change.
Change 4 Life is an awareness campaign that encourages individuals to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing but does it go far enough? I do not feel that there are many overweight or obese people that are not already aware of the benefits of exercise and healthy eating. Maybe the government need to regulate the food industry by treating fat, calorific content and additives in a similar way to tobacco and alcohol.
We need to stop giving lip service to the issue and look beyond fashionable association to inactivity and obesity by brands trying to improve their bottom line and celebrities trying to fuel their stardom. Asking Ainsley Harriot to prepare a healthy meal and then expect Joe Public to do the same is like watching Wayne Rooney score a free kick from twenty yards and then asking us to have a go.
Sky Sports have recently launched a new campaign called “Get Involved” which involves a series of short videos each week with celebrities telling us why health and exercise are beneficial. Is this genuinely trying to engage those people who are faced with numerous barriers to participation such as low self esteem, transport, cost and isolation?
If celebrity support and endorsements are not the solution, where else can we look for positive and impactful role models? One would like to think that this role is already performed by parents but the evidence is also irrefutable that many of them abdicated this responsibility a long time ago.
Dianne Abbott makes an excellent observation that, regardless of choice, responsibility or resources, schools have a crucial role to play if we are to reverse the trend of inactivity and obesity:
“Schools should be on the front line in the battle against obesity…It is important that we develop an environment where people can make healthy choices – and that we understand the significance of issues like safe play areas for kids, physical activity and also of the advertising of junk food, sugary soft drinks and alcohol…”
Maybe schools can absorb this responsibility and hand this baton back to parents after they have experienced a different childhood and education to their own parents. However, we need to be careful that schools are adequately supported to embrace this new challenge. Traditional methods and thinking may need to be reviewed to ensure that well intentioned individuals, like Mrs Abbott, have the expertise to make a real difference, and not simply expect children to play in the streets!