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January 23, 2020

Walking to school is not enough to combat childhood obesity

Walking to school is not enough to combat childhood obesity

New research by Dr Rob Noonan of the University of Liverpool reveals a steep social gradient to childhood overweight/obesity rates in England, with the burden falling disproportionately on children living in the most deprived areas.

Where lack of exercise often receives the blame for the steady rise in childhood overweight/obesity rates, Noonan’s research also shows that children living in the most deprived neighborhoods, who are at the greatest risk of being overweight or obese, are actually most likely to walk to and from school. 

Combating childhood obesity therefore needs more effort than simply getting children to walk to school more often, as a recent UK government plan includes in its recommendations. Economic and environmental factors that affect physical activity and diet also influence a child’s weight.

The most deprived children are found to be most likely to not take part in sport, spend lots of time watching TV or in other screen-based activities, and are most likely to have an unhealthy diet (involving too many sugary drinks and not enough fruit).

Noonan says that combating childhood obesity and its inequalities will only be achieved when the neighborhoods 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.”

IZA World of Labor author Wencke Gwozdz notes that there were approximately 200 million overweight and obese children worldwide in 2014. She says, “This high prevalence is concerning because of obesity’s harmful effects on children’s emotional and physical health and the high likelihood that childhood obesity will transmit into adulthood,” a subject taken up by Susan Averett in her article on the hidden costs of obesity in adulthood

Averett says “There is growing evidence that obese people often receive lower wages and are less likely to be employed than non-obese people, and that these adverse outcomes are likely caused by obesity. Obesity threatens to become an increasing burden on all taxpayers as a result of the associated higher medical costs, lower productivity and wages, and reduced probability of finding employment … Governments and employers have a compelling interest in finding ways to reduce obesity levels and discrimination against obese workers.”

Noonan concludes his report by saying: “Intervention programmes to reduce inequalities in childhood obesity should promote and support participation in a range of health behaviours not just active school commuting. The clear demonstration of childhood health and health behaviour inequalities across England is very significant in the context of ongoing austerity and public health funding cuts which will undoubtedly challenge the health behaviour choices of the most socially disadvantaged children in society.”

Read more IZA World of Labor articles on health.