Physical activity: a solution to childhood obesity?

Yesterday government released the second chapter of their Childhood Obesity Plan. Ben Jessup, Policy Adviser at the Sport and Recreation Alliance analyses the key details and considers what the Plan means moving forwards.

When government launched the first stage of Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action in August 2016, there was a widespread feeling it had watered down the commitment to action.

The result? An ineffective action plan, with limited potential impact.

Now, almost two years later, we see government put more thought to paper, though it still fails to embed sport and physical activity as a systemic means to tackle childhood obesity.

A few of the key items to note:

  • Government is to consult on ending the sale of energy drinks to children and introducing a 9pm watershed for TV advertising around HFSS (high in fat, salt or sugar) products;
  • Government will also develop resources to help local authorities in deploying their existing powers and collate local authority best practice around ‘what works’ in different communities;
  • Government will ‘promote a national ambition’ for every primary school to adopt an active mile initiative and provide £1.6m funding during 2018/19 to support cycling and walking to school.

Undoubtedly a step forward from the first chapter, but it does not go far enough – something the Alliance, ukactive and Youth Sport Trust are all agreed on.

Vague statements of action give little credence to government’s intent, with ambiguous language and short-term interventions featuring more than should be expected.

Government must help children and young people establish and sustain an active lifestyle from their early years if we are to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic.

At face value, both the 2016 and 2018 plans recognise that regular physical activity carries numerous health benefits and is a key part of long-term weight management, yet appropriate interventions remain disconcertingly lax in this most recent chapter of the Plan.

There are existing mechanisms which can play their part, but they must be improved. While the Primary PE and Sport Premium (PESP) continues to be welcome, concerns around effectiveness and accountability remain and should be reviewed.

Likewise, with PESP funding only committed up to 2020, government must make sure that investment is meaningful if it’s to truly help children and young people develop an active lifestyle.

With the release of this second chapter, we must again remind government that spending must be long-term and consistent, rather than them seeking a short-term fix.

Beyond this, while activity across the school day is crucial – it cannot be the only time that children are active. Nurturing an active lifestyle must begin outside the school gate, and there is a crucial role for parents, youth groups, sports clubs and wider role models alike in this: we must all play our part.

Piecemeal recommendations will not cut it – we need a more comprehensive, system-wide approach.

Ultimately, we now sit at a tipping point.

Focusing on calories is only half the answer, and for as long as government continues to neglect embedding physical activity interventions across society, the childhood obesity crisis will continue.

Words into action? I’ll believe it when I see it…

You can read Chapter 2 of the Childhood Obesity Plan here.

We will also be discussing the need for a system-wide approach at the Alliance’s upcoming Sport Summit when we ask, why have we failed our children? Book now and take your place at the 2018 Sport Summit where we will be joined by senior government officials and leading voices from the sector.