Childhood obesity epidemic: prioritise walking as part of solution

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The Child Health Initiative (CHI) has called for safer streets to encourage childhood activity in response to new data, published by Imperial College London in The Lancet, showing that more than 124 million children and adolescents across the world are obese, with a further 216 million overweight children.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) responded to the report, setting out that bolder action, including around enabling environments for exercise and activity, is urgently needed. It currently has targets to halt the rise in childhood obesity and reduce mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by one third.

The Child Health Initiative, convened by the FIA Foundation, last week issued the Declaration of Every Child’s Right to Safe and Healthy Streets which comprises six articles focused on protecting children. This included a call to create healthy streets which prioritise people, not cars, which will encourage walking, cycling, outdoor play and regular exercise. A key part of the child health agenda must be to create safe streets and spaces to provide the opportunity for physical activity without danger.

Since 1975, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of obese and overweight children, across developed and developing countries. In 2016 an estimated 42 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese, and almost three quarters of these live in Asia and Africa.

Within five years, more children will be obese than underweight, with some countries struggling to address the needs of infants, children and adolescents of different background who could be either overweight or malnourished. Obesity can affect a child’s immediate health, educational attainment and quality of life.

WHO’s ‘Ending Childhood Obesity Implementation Plan’ sets out six areas of development to tackle rising obesity: healthy foods; physical activity; preconception and pregnancy care; early childhood diet and physical activity; health, nutrition and physical activity for school-age children and; weight management.

WHO recognises that no single sector should be held responsible for the epidemic, but instead recommends the coordinated contributions of all government sectors and institutions responsible for policies from education, food and agriculture through to urban planning, transport and social affairs.

Saul Billingsley, Executive Director of the FIA Foundation, welcomed WHO’s recommendations and the report: “These reports are important contributions to the global debate about the global obesity crisis and its place on the child health agenda. Our children face serious and unprecedented health risks across the globe. Governments and cities must take responsibility for developing healthier environments where children are encouraged to walk, play, exercise and develop healthy lifestyles to last a lifetime.”