THE BLOG

Inactivity, Not Obesity, Is the Real Killer

13/01/2014 13:00 GMT | Updated 15/03/2014 09:59 GMT

I have mixed feelings about National Obesity Week, which begins today. On one hand, it shines the spotlight on a serious issue that undoubtedly affects young people I work with - one in three youngsters leaving primary education is obese.

On the other, it can also serve as a distraction. I tend to agree with Dr William Bird, who argues that the real problem here is not simply obesity, but inactivity in general.

This is not to say that the social stigma of obesity is not a contributor to misery and poor mental health. Nor is it to say that obesity does not incubate poor health - it does. But it is to say that low cardio-vascular fitness, which is the direct impact of being inactive, accounts for 17% of all-cause deaths in the UK - significantly higher than smoking and obesity. In fact, globally, physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of early deaths.

Nowhere is inactivity more prevalent than in disadvantaged communities. A young man growing up in one of the UK's disadvantaged communities 2007-10 could be expected to live almost 15 years less than one of his more affluent peers. Participation in regular sport is lowest in these areas - according to Sport England surveys, young people in the 20% most deprived communities in the UK are half as likely to play regular sport compared with the least deprived 20%.

But this isn't because of a lack of demand for sport - 70% of disadvantaged young people want to partake in more sport according to the same survey. It comes down to a lack of opportunity - young people in these communities have fewer chances to play sport than their more affluent peers.

This lack of opportunity is what StreetGames, through our network of partners which includes Sport England, is trying to address. And slowly but surely, the way sport is being offered is changing.

From consulting with thousands of young people across the UK, we've created sessions that meet their needs. Young people say to us that they want a vibrant and varied offer that requires little commitment and is more social than competitive. They tell us they that prefer 'doorstep sport' or other traditional offers. Young people like to relate to the group leader who they feel runs flexible sessions for their benefit and often the doorstep sport coach will come from a nearby estate.

Other casual formats are popular too. 'Go Ride' cycle events, informal running groups and casual table tennis play in city centre and busy thoroughfares via the 'Ping' initiative are all popular. These dip-in, dip-out sporting offers are attractive for many young people although there is still a big appetite for young people to play team sports, especially football.

Sports that don't require full facilities are also appealing to disadvantaged young people. Sports clubs with membership fees can be out of reach to these communities both geographically and financially - disadvantaged youngsters may not have the transport links or financial means to access facilities outside of their neighbourhood, or they rightly fear they wont fit in.

The work being undertaken by many different organisations, including StreetGames and its network of partners, is making a difference and helping to address the sporting inequality gap. The latest Sport England APS data shows that since April 2012, the number of young people from the UK's most deprived communities taking part in sport every week has risen by 51,100, from 1,140,600 to 1,191,700.

By creating fitter, healthier communities in deprived areas across the UK, we're helping people to take more control of their lives, live longer and happier, and make fewer demands on health and social services. The impact of this will reach far beyond just the health of the young people themselves but could have a positive effect on the whole of the UK. For example, the Cabinet Office put the cost of physical inactivity on the UK economy at over £8.2bn.

Helping young people in the most difficult circumstances take up a sporting habit for life is one of the most important things we can do. So let's not get fixated on obesity and focus our energies on getting active too - we all stand to benefit.