Childhood obesity: the problem and the solution

In the UK, obesity is spreading to children as young as four years old - so how can we take back control?
25 January 2017

The prevalence of obesity within the UK has hit crisis point. The fact that now one in five children aged between 10 and 11 are suffering with this, urges immediate action.

Just by leading an inactive lifestyle, our average happiness and wellbeing can drop by 19%.
Source: Eudaimonia report, Central YMCA.

Not only can obesity cause dangerous physical problems, it can also impact a child’s mental health and wellbeing. We investigated wellbeing and happiness in the UK in our Eudaimonia report and it found a 32% difference in wellbeing scores between those who were most and least active. With a few simple changes to make our lifestyles more  active, we can boost our average happiness and wellbeing by 13%.

“For me, it starts at home. We are not born obese. We become obese through, often, bad behaviour or bad habits.”
Declan Duncan, Community Programmes Manager at YMCA Club.

Declan Duncan, our Club exercise referral specialist, talks about how children become obese: “Some people get into the habit of not chewing their food,  they’re not really aware of what they’re eating because they’re distracted by something like the TV.” 

“You will get situations where the child is eating unhealthily because their parents are giving them bad options but some kids, especially these days, may be overeating because of stress. I was a kid of the 80s and we didn’t have the internet or iphones - we played outside. Children of today tend be more inclined to sit on the internet and do a lot less exercise, but that is just a cultural thing.”

Declan’s classes include sessions on mindful eating, where members are taught to explore the taste and texture of food when chewing it, “so that you’re actually thinking about what you put in your mouth”. This approach is applied to physical exercise as members are taught about their muscles, which helps them to understand safe movement of the body. Declan believes the key to combatting bad habits is by being mindful.

“In order to lead a healthy lifestyle it is essential to be physically active.”
Dr James Thing, Sports and Exercise Medicine Physician of Highgate Hospital.

According to the NHS, children should exercise for at least one hour per day. Without this, they run the risk of being severely overweight. Sports and Exercise Medicine Physician of Highgate Hospital Dr James Thing, believes that it’s the parent’s role to encourage a healthy lifestyle: “Parents often feel that these lessons should be learnt at school, however a child will learn best by following a good example that must be set by the parents, at home.” 

But how do we motivate our children to stay healthy?

Tips to get children excited about getting healthy

Get healthy as a team: start a new healthy eating and exercise regime with the whole family*.
Challenge the family: set goals and reward achievements as a family.
Bring fitness to the everyday: walk or cycle to school, run to the local shop, stretch after school.
Get them involved in group activities: sign them up to a club where they can learn new skills.

*To ensure a child’s growth is not affected, make sure to get advice before starting your child on a weight-loss diet.

Team activities: A cure to childhood obesity?

As with anything that requires motivation, it’s better to get healthy as a team. Bupa recommends that to combat childhood obesity, the whole family should change their eating and exercise habits. This way your child doesn’t feel singled out. Children respond better to activities where they are part of a team - something that is the foundation of after-school programmes.

The use of team activities in schools and after-school programmes provides great opportunities for children to socialise and develop. YActive, is Central YMCA’s sports and activities provision for children and young people, which is managed by Laura Walsh. “Fun and play is at the centre everything we do,” says Laura. “Our coaches are taught to model positive changes rather than focus on negative language - they are really careful to keep embarrassment, shame and failure out of it.” By encouraging a positive atmosphere coaches are removing children’s fear of joining in. 

“For kids that are carrying extra weight, it’s more safe and effective to just get them moving. Don’t pressure them.”
Laura Walsh, Children and Young People Manager at YMCA Club.

True to the YMCA ethos of ‘inclusivity’, YActive offers children a range of activities to suit all abilities: “For some children competitiveness is a real motivator - for some it makes sport daunting.” It’s about not just offering traditional sports, where children think: "I’m going to be left on the bench so there’s no point in trying", but variations on them too. This way children have not already decided whether they are good at the sport or not.

“I’d like to get away from this quick fix idea that you can treat children like a unique group on their own, because they’re not - they are individuals.”
Laura Walsh, Children and Young People Manager at YMCA Club.

Team activities are not just a way for children to get fit and healthy, they also provide opportunities for self-development. “Children are individual human beings and have tastes - just like everybody else,” says Laura, “and by taking part in activities, children find out what they enjoy and build skills they can use in the future.”

Global obesity rates are set to soar and an estimated 70 million children will be obese in 2025, so they should be given the tools to get healthy and stay healthy. The routes to a healthy lifestyle develop children in all sorts of ways - the key to getting them on board is to make getting healthy fun.