By Sir Peter Birkett | September 2021 | Education

The Weight of the Pandemic

Childhood obesity in the UK is undoubtedly growing at an alarming rate. According to the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) in 2019/2020, 23% of children in reception class and 35% of Year 6 pupils were classified as obese.

These figures have been exacerbated by the pandemic where reduced physical activity and increased screen time has meant that children have been unable to partake in their normal daily activities, as leisure centres and parks were closed and social isolation was imposed.

We are now witnessing the unintended impact of such stringent lockdown policies in many areas of our children’s lives. The consequences to their mental and physical health are now being assessed by experts and the findings are disturbing.

The youngest age groups tend to adapt unquestioningly to their environments and to the regulations which are imposed on them, which means they are among the groups at the greatest risk factors which have arisen from the restrictive lives they have led over the past 18 months and to which they have become accustomed.

Other unintended consequences of the pandemic are increasing food costs which have meant that families are more likely to buy cheaper and potentially higher calorific foods, and changes in sleep patterns owing to stress and lack of physical activity which are known to have a profound effect on being overweight or obese.

In fact, studies have shown that children under the age of 10 years who get less than 10 hours sleep a night are associated with an increased risk of obesity.

Obesity in children is also linked to a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol, including higher rates of asthma, poor self-esteem and depression. In general, obese children are more susceptible to psychiatric disorders.

So, what can be done to reverse this potentially catastrophic decline in our children’s health?

Public Health interventions such as the promotion of active lifestyles and more social activities are vital to reverse the isolated Lockdown habits which have ingrained themselves in many children.

Programmes encouraging the changing of poor behavioural habits could include more education surrounding the topic of self-care and the importance of body movement.

Such programmes could be introduced in schools as part of the general curriculum to demonstrate the dangers of too much screen time, fast food and poor sleep while expounding the benefits of fresh air, play and exercise which could be taught from infancy onwards.

Simultaneously, such educational programmes could be used to raise awareness in parents, who are essentially the main drivers of these changes.

A reduction in the cost of fresh food and raising the cost of processed foods to offset this, may nudge parents to make healthier, more cost-effective choices for themselves and their children. 

Many schools in Italy, for example, ensure their children have full, healthy foods in lunches, the ingredients of which are locally sourced and quality checked by parents weekly. Fast food is viewed as an occasional treat. It takes time to change behaviours, but it is worth it to produce a nation of physically healthy and mentally motivated children.

When we have finally learnt to live with Covid, the detrimental effects of Lockdowns may be with us for years to come in the form of serious health problems in young adults, many of which began during the first lockdown of 2020 when they were still children.

Therefore, it is essential to address this potential epidemic of ill-health now, or we could see more children hospitalised with diseases which used to be associated only with adults, and which could cripple our healthcare system in the future.

We feed our race-horses and show dogs with excellent nutrition from Day 1 to ensure we get the best results from them when they are mature. It makes sense, then, that we should feed the future leaders, innovators and guardians of our country with only top-quality ingredients.

It is undoubtedly the best investment we will ever make.