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Childhood obesity is a major issue and lockdowns have only made the situation worse – so what can schools do about it?

“When they returned it was about half an hour before we all started nudging each other and commenting that they had not only grown up, but out.”

The words of this headteacher, speaking anonymously, will perhaps resonate with others across the country who noticed an increase in overweight children returning to the classroom from 8 March.

In response, the head used an early assembly to remind children of the importance of being active and made sure outdoor time was given priority – something that underlined the scale of the issue.

“I’ve asked my teachers to take them out for more playground time. My PE coach said that the Reception class were exhausted 15 minutes in, which is completely out of character,” the headteacher says.

Jack Wildsmith, a PE teacher at an independent junior school in Leicestershire, says that he has also seen a diminished enthusiasm for exercise and sports.

“I have certainly seen a huge difference in children’s approach to exercise since schools returned,” he says. “Unfortunately, some have come back overweight but more have returned with a reduced engagement in physical activity.”

And even for pupils who are keen to exercise, the lack of activity over lockdown has led to reduced fitness for many.

“They are super-excited about being outside at breaktimes and are spending the time as they usually do: playing football, gymnastics, dance routines and general running around [but] the lack of stamina is very evident,” one anonymous teacher says.

“After lunch and mid-way through the afternoon, they start to drift, concentration is less and the amount of work they are getting done dips.”

Sharon White, the head of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (Saphna), tells a similar tale: “In terms of childhood obesity, school nursing services are reporting similar [issues], though many are still only just beginning to set eyes on [pupils] and reinstate the NCMP [National Child Measurement Programme].”

Covid: The impact on child health and obesity
All this may be surprising to hear: weren’t young people doing Joe Wicks’ workouts every morning?

Lots probably were but for a larger proportion, it seems as if the reality of lockdown was a lack of structured time to get outside and exercise.

A survey by Tes in July last year found that many teachers were worried about children’s physical health just three months into the pandemic, while a survey of parents in February by the Youth Sport Trust found a big decline in the amount of exercise that their children were doing.

Some 70 per cent said their children were less physically active than a year ago, while four-fifths said their children were doing less than the recommended 60 minutes of exercise per day.

Worrying rises in child obesity
Data from the NCMP (which measures the weight of Reception and Year 6 pupils each year) shows how this has manifested.

The most recent data, published in October 2020 covering the 2019-2020 school year, found a small but clear rise in pupils classed as “obese and severely obese”.

Reception: A rise of 0.2 percentage points from 9.7 per cent in 2018-19 to 9.9 per cent in 2019-20.
Year 6: A rise of 0.8 percentage points from 20.2 per cent in 2018-19 to 21 per cent in 2019-20.

Full article: TES by Dan Worth on 31 March 2021