Turn off your screens

It has been Olympic Week here in Lausanne where all the local sports clubs set up stands in and around the Olympic Museum to introduce new sports to young people. The event has been going on, I think, for nearly thirty years now and coincides each year with the school’s half-term holidays. Nearly forty clubs/sports are represented, and nearly seven thousand children took part, in the week.

I took Monday and Thursday off from whatever else I had to do, and helped man the rowing club’s stand. We had borrowed six rowing machines from the club and set up a system where we first showed the kids to use the machines correctly—or at least without hurting themselves, and  then let them “race” themselves or their friends over five hundred metres.

On each of the two days, we introduced nearly three hundred kids, aged between eight and fourteen, to the sport. They had a great time, as indeed did I. It was wonderful to see them all so enthusiastic—and competitive.

Out of the three hundred or so kids that passed through the stand each day, there were perhaps three, or maybe four, who were over-weight. Certainly none were obese. I say that because this week the world “celebrated” World Obesity Day.

The day coincided with a report issued by Imperial College London and the World Health Organisation which showed that childhood obesity rates in the world’s children and adolescents increased from less than 1 percent (equivalent to five million girls and six million boys) in 1975 to nearly 6 percent in girls (50 million) and nearly 8 percent in boys (74 million) in 2016. Combined, the number of obese five to nineteen year olds rose more than tenfold globally, from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016.

The lead author of the report, Professor Majid Ezzati, of Imperial’s School of Public Health, said, “These worrying trends reflect the impact of food marketing and policies across the globe, with healthy nutritious foods too expensive for poor families and communities. The trend predicts a generation of children and adolescents growing up obese and at greater risk of diseases, like diabetes. We need ways to make healthy, nutritious food more available at home and school, especially in poor families and communities, and regulations and taxes to protect children from unhealthy foods.”

Dr Fiona Bull, from the WHO, took a more nuanced stance, saying, “countries should aim particularly to reduce consumption of cheap, ultra-processed, calorie dense, nutrient poor foods.” However, she added, “they should also reduce the time children spend on screen-based and sedentary leisure activities by promoting greater participation in physical activity through active recreation and sports.”

This is not the first time that the WHO has called for measures to promote active lifestyles. They write on their website, “the fundamental cause of childhood overweight and obesity is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. Global increases in childhood overweight and obesity are attributable to a number of factors including:

  • A global shift in diet towards increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other healthy micronutrients;
  • A trend towards decreased physical activity levels due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of recreation time, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanization.

Back in 2014, the Institute of Economic Affairs drew attention to the energy expenditure side of the equation, writing that, ‘Only 18 per cent of adults report doing any moderate or vigorous physical activity at work while 63 per cent never climb stairs at work and 40 per cent spend no time walking at work. Outside of work, 63 per cent report spending less than ten minutes a day walking and 53 per cent do no sports or exercise whatsoever.’

Last week also saw the controversy continue over sugar taxes, with Chicago abandoning theirs, and arguments in the press both for and against. It is an emotive issue but while everyone argues about the food intake side, let’s not forget the energy expenditure side of the equation.

So this weekend, turn off your screens, go outside, and take your kids with you.

Leave a Reply