The sad fact is that children are no longer as active as they used to be.

Instead of playing out in the garden, at the park or on the local recreation ground many youngsters today lead a sedentary life in front of a computer, games station, television or, increasingly, a mobile phone screen.

The cost, in terms of health and wellbeing, may prove to be enormous.

Inactivity has an obvious impact on weight and physical health but the Government body Public Health England, which published a report last week, also links increasing screen use to anxiety and depression in children. It is feared that mental health issues will affect more and more young people.

It is estimated that because a third of children in the UK are already overweight with between 14 and 20% classed as obese. By 2030 half the adult population will be obese.

PHE based its report on a survey of 42,000 eight to 15-year-olds conducted by the Children’s Society.

The society is particularly concerned that those with the highest levels of screen watching were the children least happy with their lives. And dissatisfaction or unhappiness can be a trigger for over-eating, alcohol or drug abuse.

Further research by University College London’s Institute of Child Health has also found that the problem of inactivity starts at an early age – as many as 50% of all seven-year-olds in the UK don’t exercise enough to be healthy. There is also a striking gender gap, with girls generally exercising even less than boys.

The same researchers discovered that only four in 10 girls achieved the minimum recommended activity levels of an hour or more a day compared with 63% of the boys.

In fact, by the time they become teenagers, more than 70% of young people are not getting enough exercise.

Stranger danger and road traffic are often cited by parents as the reason for not allowing children to be as ‘free range’ as they once were.  But there’s also the allure of digital technology, something previous generations never had access to.

It all adds up to a worrying scenario for the future health of the nation.

Those who work with children are generally agreed that it’s vital to engage youngsters with a healthier lifestyle at an early age. And, if at all possible, to get parents on board.

They also see a growing culture of using computer technology to ‘babysit’ children as a serious problem.

Linda Stacey, sports coordinator at Newsome High School and Sports College, says schools can do a lot to encourage activity but the problem starts at home.

“There’s got to be a change in society,” she said. “If a child is overweight then it’s the parent’s fault. We’ve got to educate children and parents together.

“I’ve got children and I know that allowing them to sit at their computer is an easy way out if you have something you want to get on with. But there all sorts of activities out there for kids and they don’t cost a lot. Some are even free.”

Linda, who runs the Sporting Partnerships and Initiatives from Newsome (SPIN), which was set up in 2011, says she sees the evidence of sedentary lifestyles at the schools she visits.

She explained: “I go around a lot of schools doing all sorts of things, including cross country. We get every single child taking part, but it really worries me when you see the kids walking after 100 metres because they can’t run any more. Children of eight or nine should be able to run further than that.”

SPIN, one of four school sports partnerships in Kirklees, came into being because the Government pulled funding from the previous School Sport Partnership at Newsome. The venture had been extremely successful, involving 47 Huddersfield schools and 10,000 children, and so Linda and her colleagues fought to keep the work going.

Today participating schools pay directly for SPIN services – training for teachers, organising sporting events and Change4Life clubs (see separate panel) – and the numbers of those participating has fallen by half.

“We’re hoping to get more schools on board,” said Linda. “The shame of it is that we were doing very well, we were at a stage where we had close links with schools and sports clubs, children were taking part in competitions and then the funding goes and the structure falls apart.

“We have seen a massive drop in children taking part in sports competitions and the provision in schools is now very patchy.”

There is a small ray of hope for the immediate future, however, as the Government is giving all primary schools a ‘sport premium’, which they can spend to improve sports teaching and participation by pupils. This funding, which will be made available for the next two years, will be ring-fenced and can only be spent on sports provision.

“We are trying to help schools spend it wisely,” said Linda. “Our main recommendation will be to spend it on teacher training so schools are confident of delivering a good programme of physical education. Primary teachers don’t get much PE training at college.

“Then if this funding is pulled in two years time they will have invested in up-skilling the teachers.”

Linda says she’d like to see schools introducing exercise sessions first thing in the morning and believes the benefits would soon manifest themselves.

“Exercise to start the day wakes children up and makes them feel more alert. It’s done in other countries,” she said.

Child obesity is becoming a major problem
Child obesity is becoming a major problem
 

The impact of exercise on wellbeing and mental health in children is at the core of an ongoing project run by Shaun Weatherhead, a former professional football player and fitness trainer from Huddersfield.

Shaun founded his motivational company U Can Shine in 2006 and takes his programme of health, fitness and inspirational coaching to schools across the country. At the moment he’s working with schools in the North West, in areas of social deprivation.

He says the challenge is to break the cycle of obesity and unhealthy lifestyles: “It’s not rocket science – more children are more sedentary than we ever were and they’re not burning off the calories they take in from fast foods and snacks. Their behaviour is modelled by their parents, who are also over-weight and inactive.”

But Shaun’s approach is to educate children and parents to make healthier choices. Jamie Oliver has got it right, he says. Last week the television chef criticised families who owned plasma television sets while arguing that they couldn’t afford fresh, healthy food.

He explained: “Parents say it costs more to eat healthily but we say it is about making the choice about what you spend your money on.

“One boy I met was drinking five bottles of ‘coke’ a day. He had behavioural issues, wasn’t sleeping properly and his mum was saying she couldn’t afford to pay her rent.

“We looked at the cost of the coke and the amount of sugar that he was consuming and pointed out that without the ‘coke’ his behaviour could improve, he could sleep and his mum could pay the rent.”

Shaun believes that while obesity is a major issue, many children are now suffering from malnutrition. “The biggest ticking time bomb is emotional wellbeing and mental health,” he said.

“What we eat and what exercise we take affects how we feel.  Without eating properly and getting enough exercise children don’t have the feelgood factor.  Obesity leads to children getting bullied and suffering from low self-esteem. They become social outcasts and isolate themselves and this leads to problems of employability when they get older.”

He feels that sport has been squeezed from the timetable in many schools and at home children are being ‘nannied’ by computers and digital technology.

“The biggest driver in schools is maths and literacy so more and more time is being taken up with that and getting good SATS results,” said Shaun.

“And parents find it easier to let their children stay in their bedrooms with their computers.  They know where they are and they don’t have to do anything with them. It’s tragic.”

To Coincide with the beginning of the new school year the Government has launched a new Change4Life campaign, which it calls Smart Restart.zz030913change.jpg

The start of the autumn/winter term is seen as a psychologically important time to encourage families to think about adopting healthier lifestyles.

Suggestions include making up healthier lunchboxes for children and walking to school. Studies have shown that small changes to everyday behaviour are more likely to be sustainable than crash diets and punishing exercise regimes.

Change4Life is a government initiative to improve public health. Earlier this year it ran a series of high-profile advertisements that exposed the hidden ‘nasties’ in common foods – for example, the 17 sugar cubes in a bottle of cola and more than a wine glass of fat in a large pizza.

The Government says that the initiative has changed behaviour patterns but the UK still has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, with over 60 per cent of adults and a third of 10 and 11-year-olds overweight or obese.

A survey by Change4Life discovered that many people don’t know the nutritional content of foods. Half of those surveyed, for instance, were surprised to discover that a large takeaway pepperoni pizza has two times the recommended maximum daily intake of saturated fat.

Obesity-related diseases cost the NHS £5 billion each year, with 40,000 people dying prematurely of conditions attributable to being overweight or obese.

The Change4Life brand (www.nhs/change4life) is used by organisations and local authorities to push the healthy lifestyle message. Helen Heaton, from Kirklees’ Communications and Marketing Department, explained: “Change4Life encourages children and families to ‘Eat well, move more and live longer’.

“There are many opportunities for children and young people to take part in sport and be active provided by organisations including the council, voluntary groups and sports clubs, Huddersfield Community Trust and  Kirklees Active Leisure.” (Check out www.kirklees.gov.uk/sport for a list of sports club in our area).

CONTACTS

Kirklees Active Leisure, www.kirkleesactive.co.uk, has 11 sports centres and provides special KAL Kids sessions for a range of activities. The Get Into Sport project offers children the chance to try out sports at a subsidised rate – some sessions are even free.

The council’s Sport and Physical Activity Team runs after-school sessions for children aged three to 11. Find out more on 01484 234089.

For youngsters aged between five and 16 who are above a healthy weight the Start scheme encourages a family approach to better health. Check out www.kirklees.gov.uk/start

Huddersfield Community Trust provides activities linked with Huddersfield Town FC and The Giants RLFC – based at The Zone in Huddersfield. Visit http://thezonehct.com/ for details.

Kirklees also has cycling and walking routes suitable for families. Check out  www.kirklees.gov.uk/walking or www.kirklees.gov.uk/cycling

Father-of-three , former professional rugby  player and Brighouse gym owner Paul Sterling says parents have to take responsibility for their children’s health.

“It’s an easy option having children upstairs playing on the computer and it’s an extra commitment to take them out and do something with them,” he explained.

“But parents have to take an interest in their children’s health and set an example.

“I have a 12-year-old who is very active. He sees what I do. He also has a computer but he’s limited to what time he spends on it.”

Over the years as a personal trainer Paul, who owns PS4 Fitness, says he’s heard just about every excuse for weight gain and inactivity.

“People say it’s too expensive to eat healthily and they don’t have time to make meals,” he said. “But how long does it take to chop up a salad as opposed to ringing up for a take-away.

“And it doesn’t cost a lot to take your kids to the park and have a good run around. Or you can go for a walk or a swim. It burns calories and is fun at the same time.

“Parents make excuses, but they should be thinking about the impact of their lifestyle on the family’s health.

There are also issues of self esteem – overweight children can end up being bullied and are not able to socialise properly.”

The number of people with obesity in the UK has more than trebled in the last 25 years. A Government report has claimed that obesity will cost the NHS £6.4bn per year by 2015. Doctors say the condition is reaching 'epidemic' proportions.

Obesity has been related to a wide variety of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, indigestion, gallstones, some cancers (eg, breast and prostate cancers), infertility, snoring and sleep apnoea, stress, anxiety, and depression.