More children are overweight or obese nowadays because they don’t get enough exercise, it is often claimed. One of the UK government’s goals in the Childhood Obesity Plan is to increase the number of children who walk to school. Walking is certainly healthy, but is it enough to combat childhood obesity? Our latest study suggests it isn’t.
Using data on over 7,000 11-year-olds born in England, we found that children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods in England were most likely to walk to and from school and were also at the greatest risk of being overweight or obese. The most deprived children were also most likely to not take part in sport, spend lots of time in front of TV and computer screens and most likely to have an unhealthy diet (lots of sugary drinks and not much fruit).
We’re not suggesting that walking to school leads to childhood obesity, but that living in a poor neighbourhood and being poor does. Combating childhood obesity needs more than simply getting children to walk to school more often. That’s because many factors influence a child’s weight, including economic and environmental ones that affect physical activity and diet.
Right to a healthy environment
For too long behavioural intervention programmes that focus on education and personal responsibility have been seen as the answer to unhealthy lifestyles (physical inactivity, unhealthy eating) and childhood obesity. We focus on treatment instead of prevention and wonder why we have a revolving door system – one that’s not working.
Behavioural intervention programmes are mostly ineffective in the long run and do little to tackle health inequities when the policies and the social and environmental conditions that promote unhealthy eating and inactivity are left untouched. Even when behavioural intervention programmes are successful, there’s a new group of children waiting to take part in the next one.
Children have a right to live in a healthy environment. Combating childhood obesity and its inequalities will only be achieved when the neighbourhoods children live in support physical activity and healthy eating. We need policies that ensure there’s a level playing field in terms of the accessibility and pricing of healthy food and active leisure opportunities. It should come as no surprise that childhood obesity is highest and increasing at the fastest rate in the most deprived neighbourhoods.
The facilities that support physical activity and healthy eating are typically less common in deprived neighbourhoods. Deprived neighbourhoods have the fewest parks and green spaces and the fewest shops selling affordable fresh food.
Households in deprived neighbourhoods often have little disposable income, which makes accessing active leisure opportunities, such as sports clubs, difficult. It also makes it harder to have a balanced diet – the poorest households in England would need to spend 74% of their budget on food to achieve Public Health England’s healthy eating advice.
Impact of austerity
The government’s Childhood Obesity Plan recognises that the environment needs to change, but little is being done at a policy level to see this through. Children face diminishing opportunities to take part in active leisure as a result of cuts in public funding. Public swimming and leisure centres, which were once free for all children, face closure. Cuts to maintenance budgets and increased urbanisation place public parks and green spaces under threat, too.
The food environment isn’t becoming any more supportive of healthy eating either. Fast-food outlets continue to be built in the poorest neighbourhoods and next to schools as healthy food prices rise, and unhealthy foods become cheaper and more accessible. This is at a time when child poverty is rising in the UK and the poorest families in society are struggling to make ends meet due to rising living costs, low wages and cuts to welfare benefits. We’re walking backwards not forwards.