THE BLOG

Diet is Half the Solution to Childhood Obesity - Physical Activity Plays an Important Part Too

01/12/2015 15:21 GMT | Updated 01/12/2016 10:12 GMT

It's difficult to open a newspaper at the moment and not read about the proposed 'sugar tax'. As we know, this is an attempt to tackle the ballooning childhood obesity problem. What you might not know is just how big the problem is.

Currently, one in three children leaves primary school obese or overweight and this figure is even higher for those in deprived areas. That makes for depressing reading so it's refreshing to see solutions being offered up rather than just more talk.

The Commons' Health Select Committee now says there is "compelling evidence" that a tax would reduce consumption of sugary drinks. Less widely reported is the Committee's recommendation, backed by health charities like the British Heart Foundation, to promote walking and other forms of active travel, as part of a series of measures to combat obesity.

Their report, published this week, also calls for greater powers for local authorities 'to reform the built environment to promote active transport'. In short, this means making sure our streets are fit for walking so that more people get out there and start enjoying its benefits.

At Living Streets we know that encouraging more children to walk to school is one of the best places to start to tackle inactivity. Walking to school is a free, accessible and easy way for children to build exercise into their day. The Government agrees too. Last year they committed to having 55 per cent of primary-age children walking to school by 2025. My concern is that no funds have been allocated to this. Without real investment, the reality of increasing the amount walking from 46 to 55 per cent is unlikely.

We know that issues such as traffic speeds and congestion around the school gates can put some families off walking. Living Streets works with schools and local authorities to overcome barriers to walking. It's pretty simple really: find out what the problems are, address them and watch walking rates increase. We know it works; we've seen it.

Our Walk to School campaign supports over one million children in 4000 schools to walk more through national schemes and events, making it one of the UK's leading behaviour change campaigns for young people.

As well as helping fight against childhood obesity, the walk to school offers a range of other benefits for children, families, schools and beyond.

A recent independent study showed that every £1 invested in Living Streets' Walk to School campaign brings a return of more than £4 in benefits to the wider community, ranging from public health, road safety, parking, the environment and local economies.

Physically active children are more alert, ready to learn and achieve better grades than those who are driven. Whilst children are getting active, the parents and grandparents who are accompanying them are too, adding to their own recommended daily levels of activity. More children walking also means fewer cars on the road, making school gates a safer place and reducing traffic jams. It really is a very cost-effective way to cut traffic congestion and improve public health.

Despite these many benefits, the number of pupils doing so is in serious decline. A relatively small investment from the Government could help make walking the norm for millions of children, helping to cut childhood obesity. I'm concerned that the reduction in funding for walking and cycling arising from last week's Spending Review will mean the problem isn't addressed.

To echo the Chair of the Health Select Committee, Dr. Sarah Wollaston MP, who said about obesity:

"There are many causes and no one single or simplistic approach will provide the answer. We therefore urge the Prime Minister to make a positive and lasting difference to children's health and life chances through bold and wide ranging measures within his childhood obesity strategy."

The growing obesity problem is a sad reflection of our unhealthy lifestyles and whilst diet is one aspect of this, it's also critical that we tackle physical inactivity.

Things will only get worse if we don't act soon.