One of my core priorities for children is that they grow up happy and well. Younger children in particular have told me about how much they want to live healthy lifestyles – and sometimes about the things that stand in their way. A key challenge for children’s health is reducing obesity among children.
Over the pandemic child obesity in the UK made its highest ever annual increase. Between 2019/20 and 2020/21, child obesity in reception-aged children rose 4.5 percentage points to 14.4%. For children in year 6, there was an increase from 21.0% to 25.5%.
Children were very clear in The Big Ask, the largest-ever survey of children that I conducted last year, about how COVID had affected their physical activity levels and what this mean for them.
‘Lock down was the worst for people everywhere. That means you can’t go to gyms, swimming pools, training grounds etc. and this has been destroying their mental and physical health.’ – Boy, 13.
I was very pleased to see that there was a significant drop this year – with obesity rates for reception-aged children down to 10.4% and for children in year 6 down to 23.5% between 2020/21 to 2021/22.
One of the major challenges that we have after the pandemic is how to encourage young people to be active.
The Chief Medical Officer advises that children and young people should average an hour of moderate or vigorous physical activity each day. It’s also recommended that children undertake a variety of types and intensities of activity across the week, as well as minimising and breaking up time spent sedentary.
A recent study by the University of Cambridge shows that only 53% of children aged 6 are meeting those guidelines. Another study at the University of Bristol showed that by the end of 2021 only 36% of children aged 10 to 11 were meeting the national guidelines and were on average spending 13% less time being active.
Children have told me again and again that they want to be active and how they feel that sport is getting squeezed out of school.
‘Obesity is on the rise and I think that schools aren’t doing any fun PE activities to actually motivate us to do PE, especially in secondary schools.’ – Girl, 14.
‘Suggestion – could school days be longer helping parents to work/get jobs, incorporating extra activities/sports/gym/trampolining/yoga/swimming etc etc to help solve obesity in children, with no extra cost to parents and prevent taxpayers paying out for people on benefits, also preventing computer screen time for children.’ – Boy, 17.
That’s why I have called for schools to be open before and after school, especially those in disadvantaged areas, to access the social, sporting and cultural experiences that they value. It is also vital to ensure that children have access to renewed community youth services that provide them the chance to be active in safe public spaces.
This week, I also met with the ‘Bite Back’ Youth Board. Bite Back 2030 is a youth-led movement working to achieve a world where all young people have the opportunity to be healthy, no matter where they live. I spoke to the board about the importance of school in offering healthy, nutritious meals. I want to see more schools offering breakfast clubs so that every child can get a healthy breakfast to kickstart their school day. I also want to see a continuation of the Holiday Activities Fund (HAFs), so that the most disadvantaged children can access social and cultural enrichment during their holiday. HAFs are important in ensuring that all children, including the most disadvantaged, have access to sports and wellbeing activities over the holiday period.