In our previous article into the effect of lockdown on childhood obesity, we explored the prevalence and worsening of this epidemic through reduced physical activity and poorer dietary choices. Numerous commentators reported that before lockdown began, youth obesity was at an unsurpassed high here in Britain, with 20% of all year 6 students (age 10 and 11) being classed as obese. Furthermore, 1 out of 10 reception age youngsters met the criteria for obesity, with a further 12.8% being overweight. Youth obesity, as previously detailed, has enormous ramifications for the future of young children as they transition into adulthood, and represents an ensured strain on the medical services framework. In this article, we aim to outline some of the strategies, methods and schemes which are pivotal in controlling and counteracting this worrying epidemic.
Strategies to tackle childhood obesity post lockdown
Nutritional awareness schemes
A big focus of the government over this lockdown period following support from celebrities was the call for continued support of the school meals scheme. School meals are imperative to supporting the nutritional requirements of children from disadvantaged homes, but also provide a perfect opportunity to control portion size and the types of food being consumed. The government has also announced Nutritional Standards which are to be published soon on ministerial approval through the Department of Education.
We hope to see further investment into providing education for caregivers, teachers and parents, particularly as there seems to be a shared influence of heredity through obese and overweight parents. There are also concerns that the number of families using foodbanks has increased, and those who are on the borderline may purchase cheaper food with higher calorific content to get the most ‘bang for their buck’. This, however, often comes at the cost of poor nutritional value, but is a ‘needs must’ when there are economic limiting factors. Clearly, this is a broad issue without easy solutions, and must be targeted correctly through a multi-faceted approach.
Physical activity in schools and home
Physical activity is arguably the most potent tool we have to improve health, wellbeing, learning and growth in our young people. Not only does it directly combat obesity, but it also improves school performance and quality of life in children of all ages. Currently, the guidelines for physical activity for children of up to the age of 16 is a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per day. The numbers of children actually adhering to these guidelines is low, and the number of parents and caregivers in the UK with knowledge of these guidelines must be lower still. In the 2017, the government set out plans as to how schools and parents can support exercise above and beyond the 2 hours provided by schools each week (through PE).
Active breaktimes, outdoor learning and incentivising exercise are all good buzzwords, but since the guidance in 2017 was given, not much change has been seen in physical activity levels. Perhaps during the easing of restrictions, we may have seen an increase in walks, football and outdoor cycling in younger people, but a top-down strategy is required to increase the importance of physical activity in this age group. With the stark reality of the coronavirus pandemic becoming apparent, it is now impossible to hide from the fact that unhealthy lifestyles do predict bad outcomes. Perhaps the pandemic poses an opportunity to confront society with the true predictors of good outcomes: exercise, nutrition adequacy, good diet and good life habits (sleep, psychological care).
Setting rules and encouraging health lifestyles
A big contributor to obesity in individuals of all ages is thought to be poor sleep. Poor sleep quality prevents proper rest, can spike hunger, but also disrupts intricate hormonal patterns which contribute to normal energy metabolism. When perturbed, these mechanisms enter dysfunction, whereby hormones are released at inopportune times or in inadequate amounts. For example, many people have experienced hunger the day after a poor sleep – in this process, the body is attempting to utilise excess calories from food above normal intake for alertness and chemical processes. But the answer is not just to get more sleep. Sleeping beyond the 8-9 hours (or more, for children) can still incur perturbances in these bodily processes by negatively affecting the circadian rhythms of the body (our body clock).
A buzzword that is thrown around a lot is sleep hygiene. This though, really can be a potent tool to begin to achieve more restful sleep. The disruption of sleep is a massive inhibitor of growth, correct bodily functioning, attention, mood and alertness in children. Taking steps like limiting electronic use close to bed, introducing subtle relaxation or meditative practice, and also ensuring plenty of physical activity is achieved can all contribute to a higher quality sleep.
It’s clear this issue cannot be tackled from interventional measures alone. Policy reform, law rethink and honest public discussion is required to really get to the heart of this matter. An archetype not yet outlived is our parents are often the biggest role models and genetically are good predictors of what we can expect in our lifetimes. Although there are genetic factors which relate to obesity, these are minimal, and often it is the environment we are in that contribute to adverse behavioural patterns. Schools, parents, the government and individuals are all responsible for promoting a healthy society whereby positive messages are relayed, and clear scientific evidence drives policy change. With many topics permeating the wellness sphere such as fad dieting and medical interventions for obesity, a fundamental change must happen to achieve any real progress in this issue in future generations. One hopes that the increase in contact with nature as a result of the lockdown will positively influence families and children to rekindle their love with the outside world and those newfound activities we’ve come to enjoy.