When I first qualified as a personal trainer and fitness instructor 25 years ago there was very little in the public arena about what is now the seemingly national and international problem of childhood obesity. So what is it that has changed so dramatically in the lives of children and what can be done about it? Quite clearly there are many factors to the problem and likewise many aspects to the solution. I am going to focus mainly on the physical aspects of the problem as the purposes of this document as it is through physical activity that I believe an extremely important contribution to the solution can be provided.
The Issue in Numbers
This is an excerpt from the UK government paper written way back in 2006 Tackling Child Obesity-First Steps – Obesity is a serious health condition. It is defined as carrying too much body fat for your height and sex. A person is considered obese if they have a body mass index or BMI (weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in metres) of 30 or greater. Obesity is a causal factor in a number of chronic diseases and conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and, overall, it reduces life expectancy by an average of nine years. There has been a steady rise in the number of children aged 2-10 who are obese—from 9.9% in 1995 to 13.4% in 2004. Such children are more likely to be obese adults.
In England in 2018/19, 22.6% of children aged 4-5 were either overweight, obese or severely obese and much higher at 34.3% among children aged 10-11. This from Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
This of course is not just a problem in the UK. ‘Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. The problem is global and is steadily affecting many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. The prevalence has increased at an alarming rate. Globally, in 2016 the number of overweight children under the age of five, is estimated to be over 41 million. Almost half of all overweight children under 5 lived in Asia and one quarter lived in Africa.‘ World Health Organisation
What is the problem with childhood obesity exactly?
The main problem is that if a child becomes obese even though they experience few serious health problems as children they are storing problems up for their future adult life. Some of the body processes in obese children can change and some of these changes are difficult to reverse in adult life and some are irreversible. Fat storage cells, adipocytes, within the bodies of children are created in the first few years of life if these cells are filled up quickly, more adipocytes will be created until an obese child can have up to three times as many as a normal child. The adipocytes will stop multiplying and at this point the child will have the same amount for the rest of their life. The adipocytes then simply expand or retract as they store more or less fat. This makes it harder for the adult that was obese as a child to loose weight with good nutrition and exercise as the body tries to store fat in proportion to the amount of adipocytes.
Another worrying trend is the increase of type II diabetes that is now appearing in children and young adults, something that usually does not occur until later in life. Type II diabetes once presented is incurable and will mean a lifetime of controlling blood sugar levels with the increased risk of complications that can occur such as heart disease, kidney disease and blindness.
Another issue can be low self esteem or even depression in children due to a negative body image. This in turn can lead to listlessness and lack of physical activity which exacerbates the problem.
Why are levels of Childhood Obesity Getting Worse
Indeed, why has this problem emerged and what is so different now compared to just 35 years ago? The BMA (British Medical Association) produced a report in June 2005 called Preventing childhood obesity and in it they suggest the following
‘there are a number of explanations for the observation that children today may be more inactive than those of previous generations. These include the increased use of cars, the reduction in likelihood that children can ‘play outside’ (for safety reasons) and the increase in more sedentary activities such as playing computer games and watching television.‘
and from the same source –
‘The prevalence of activity (at least 60 minutes of activity on all seven days prior to the survey*) and inactivity (less than 30 minutes of activity) in children. It should be emphasised that although
two thirds of children (2-11 year olds) are meeting the government’s requirement of at least 60 minutes of moderate activity per day, this means that one third are not. *Source: Health Survey for England, 2002
Physical activity as a solution.The first thing to make clear is that obesity is a complex issue and I would emphasise again that many factors including good nutrition will influence the solution. However regarding physical activity the BMA report Preventing childhood obesity states.’
‘Physical activity is essential for good health at all ages. As a key determinant of energy expenditure, physical activity is fundamental to energy balance and weight control. It has a range of benefits during childhood, including healthy growth and development, maintenance of energy balance, psychological well being, social interaction and reduction of risk factors such as hypertension and high cholesterol. Physical activity is important for bone health and development. Exercises that produce physical stresses on the bones during the years of the growth spurt can help to increase bone mineral density and protect against osteoporosis in later life. Children may engage in physical activity through play and recreation, which further enhances their social and mental growth as well as their physical growth.‘ BMA
Skipping as a solution.
There are many reasons why skipping is of particularly benefit as a great physical activity for fighting childhood obesity;
Longevity – because it really is great fun – Skipping is not something you have to force on children, for most simply teach them the basic skipping skills show them the cool skipping tricks and skipping games that can be learnt and watch them flourish!
Low cost – either for an individual or an institution there is a minimum requirement for equipment or facilities. A skipping rope and some space indoors or out.
Versatility – skipping can be used as a warm up for other activities. Skipping can be an individual or social activity. Skipping can be a great fun as School P.E. lessons or in after school clubs. Skipping is great a playground activity. Skipping can be practiced at home. The fun of Skipping can be shared with teachers, mum and dad, brothers and sisters.
Instant reward – from the first 5 minutes there is fun to be had and goals to achieve and all the while the benefits of physical activity.
Aspiration – once children understand the abundance of skipping rhymes, games and tricks to be learnt which are very cool in themselves and also the skipping awards and records that can be achieved. Many will want to go on to develop their new found skills.
For these reasons we at skip-hop have found that by using skipping it is possible to get children away from computer games and sedentary lifestyles and involved in a physical activity that they themselves will want to be involved in. With the many smaller goals and achievements that can be made on the way to becoming good at skipping children can develop higher levels of self esteem. And with individual skipping the tricks that can be learnt, once seen by other children will be inspirational targets for all. The group activities like long rope skipping and double dutch skipping encourage interaction among different sexes and age groups and helps develop a sense of ‘belonging to a club’ and of achievement. And all the while the children are burning fat instead of laying it down, building muscles, strengthening hearts and lungs, developing denser bones and reducing the childhood obesity statistics all while having a great time.