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Ahead of 4Children's Healthy Children, Bright Futures conference next month, Dr Lala Manners looks at how to tackle childhood obesity in the early years.

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Dr Lala Manners

Childhood obesity is now an epidemic in the UK, with twelve per cent of children starting nursery overweight or obese. This number rises to 22 per cent at reception age, and 33 percent by the time children arrive at secondary school.

 What is contributing to the obesity ‘epidemic’?

There are many contributing factors, including a child’s environment, parental involvement, and even technology. But primarily, and not surprisingly, the key contributors are poor diet and lack of physical activity.

Sugar in particular has a huge effect, and this was first brought to light in the early 1970s. Food companies, alarmed by the inevitable impact this would have on sales, began an aggressive campaign – particularly aimed at children – to mitigate adverse publicity, and this is still continuing today. As a result, professional bodies were not prepared for the rise in obesity levels from the mid-1980s onwards, and we have been playing catch-up ever since.

The role of physical activity in supporting children’s overall health and well-being, and in laying down the behaviours that ensure lifelong engagement with physical activity, has been consistently downplayed if not overlooked completely. If children are not competent and confident movers by the time they start school, they are unlikely to engage effectively in physical activity later on in life, leading them to undoubtedly join the statistics of children who are failing to thrive in this environment due to their weight status.

Why is it important for young children to be active?

On a basic physical level, being active promotes muscle and bone growth. Daily movement experience also supports the vital vestibular and proprioceptive systems – both of which are intricately linked to learning and utterly dependent on daily physical activity to work effectively.

The benefits of physical activity to children’s social and emotional health and well-being are many and varied.  Simply through the daily experience of physical activity, children learn about themselves and the world. They learn to delegate, co-operate and negotiate with their peers whilst experiencing how to work effectively in a team. They also begin to understand the need for patience, resilience and determination as the acquisition, rehearsal and refinement of physical skills takes time, effort and practice.

They also learn the important art of self-regulation – when children deal with disappointment, failure, competition and success, they figure out what they most enjoy.

Are children meeting the Activity Guidelines set out by the Chief Medical Officer?

No. The UK guidelines suggest 180 minutes of daily physical activity as the optimum length of time to support children’s overall health and well-being. However the reality is that less than 10 per cent of children are reaching this threshold.

This alarming statistic points to the imperative need for health and education bodies to work more closely together, especially on a policy level. The physical activity guidelines were launched by health bodies, but at present do not complement or support Physical Development as a ‘prime area’ of learning in the EYFS.

This is undoubtedly having a negative effect on the ability of practitioners to support children’s physical development and afford them daily opportunities for purposeful physical activity.

What would you like to see in the forthcoming Obesity Strategy?

I strongly believe that the Early Years must be included in the strategy, and I hope that physical activity is afforded parity of status with food and nutrition.

However, with or without the strategy, the issue of early years obesity needs to be addressed. Practitioners now have the opportunity to play a much more effective role in supporting health professionals. We have the vision and skills, but we need to form closer relationships with the national health bodies and create a sustainable strategy for the early years workforce who will be on the front line dealing with the impact of obesity on children’s lives on a daily basis.

  • Dr Lala Manners is speaking at 4 Children's Healthy Children, Bright Futures conference on 16 June. The conference covers key health issues affecting under-fives, and outlines practical ways to help improve children’s health. 

Dr Manners has worked in the field of early years physical activity and development for more than 25 years, is a passionate advocate for all forms of children’s physical activity – and travels widely to support practice and policy in this field.

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