CHILDHOOD, once synonymous with freedom and carefree games in the sunshine, is now a time of indoor activity.
The rapid increase in the number of children who are overweight or obese (one-fifth of those starting school in Scotland) is alarming health professionals,
The call by Dr Susan Robertson, a GP and kidney specialist from Dumfries, for the British Medical Association to support a ban on local authorities selling off outdoor play areas and to ask the UK and devolved governments to promote a culture of children playing outside is timely. Yet there has been no shortage of initiatives from the national to the local. These range from the five-a-day advice to eat more fruit and vegetables to the commitment (yet to be fully realised) in the SNP manifesto five years ago for school pupils to receive two hours of PE a week and local attempts to reduce unhealthy foods being sold outside schools.
Prescriptive measures at national level, such as regulation portion size, are doomed to fail amid resistance to the idea of a "nanny state". The major difficulty of relying on individual responsibility, however, is that a healthier lifestyle requires access to healthy food and exercise facilities, even if that is only a safe public park. It is obvious that eating less and exercising more is the way to tackle obesity but while the population in general is getting fatter there is a far higher prevalence of dangerously overweight people in the poorest areas than in the wealthiest. A significant factor is the poor availability of fresh fruit and vegetables in deprived areas. Poor information about food and drink means even people who try to make healthy choices are failing. Researchers at Glasgow University found people significantly underestimated the sugar content of milkshakes, smoothies, fruit juices and an energy drink because they considered these as healthy options. Requiring sugar content to be more prominently displayed would be a positive move towards a culture shift towards sport and exercise and away from overeating and junk food.
More attention must also be paid to outdoor playing space and sports facilities. Children in poorer areas are more likely to live in flats without gardens than those in the leafy suburbs and may not have a park within walking distance. Last week a list of things children should have done before reaching secondary school included such everyday experiences as running around in the rain, making dens and climbing trees. Compiled by the National Trust in England, it was doubtless intended to shock risk-averse families into visiting their properties but it is time we acknowledged that the increasingly indoor and supervised lives led by children are storing up trouble for the future. Not only is the lack of activity leading to obesity, the lack of sunlight also risks an inadequate level of vitamin D, depression and susceptibility to some diseases. So far the Queen Elizabeth II Fields Challenge to provide sports fields and parks has made little impact but if it enables more children to play outdoors, it would be a significant legacy from the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
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