The latest findings from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) released in November have highlighted certain patterns in the ongoing obesity epidemic seen in the UK. The longitudinal research project began in 2000 and has followed the lives of around 19,000 individuals from birth, through childhood and now into adolescence, collecting a variety of information on siblings, parenting methods, the parents’ health, employment and education, childcare, choice of school, the child’s health, behaviour and cognitive development, levels of income and poverty, housing, neighbourhood and residential mobility, social capital and ethnicity. Previous surveys were carried out at ages nine months, three, five and seven, and the most recent collected data on the participants at age eleven years.
The study confirmed the existence of a childhood obesity epidemic, highlighting an increase of 40 per cent in the numbers of children classed as overweight in the last four years of primary school. Out of the 13,000 sampled, 15 per cent of the children were classed as overweight and 20 per cent as obese. However, the data also showed a trend towards weight gain among those aged 7 to 11 specifically, with the incidence of weight related problems dramatically increasing during these later years. Previous research had noted that weight issues increase during primary school, but the new data from the Millennium Cohort Study allows for a more targeted approach to older primary ages.
Furthermore, the study suggested a strong link between the parents’ own weight and that of the child. Only 45.6 per cent of children whose mother was classed as obese were themselves within a healthy weight range, underscoring the significant role that adults play in the health of their child. Although the Millennium Cohort Study did not show whether the influence was due to copied behaviour and diet, learned body image, parental guidance on active and passive activities, or a combination of factors, other research has investigated the link between parental and child weight and found evidence of a correlation between maternal BMI and that of their offspring (Gibson et al., 2007). If the mother is overweight then the child is far more likely to become overweight also. A study by Birch (2002) concluded that the home environment plays a crucial role in developing a child’s eating traits and preferences. As parents are the main influencers of the home environment, they have the most impact on the food acceptance patterns of the child through decisions about the amount of food, timing of meals and snacks, and the social context in which eating takes place.
The same can be said for learned exercise habits in childhood. A study published this year in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal investigated the activity levels of 554 mothers and their young children, concluding that the amount of activity a mother and child did each day was closely related (Hesketh et al., 2014), and children were not just naturally active if they lacked the correct encouragement. The recorded levels of maternal physical activity were also extremely low, with only 53 per cent of mothers engaging in half an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise each week. This suggests that mothers would also benefit from efforts to increase levels of exercise within the household.
The above findings all highlight a definite need for intervention before the child reaches secondary school age, while early physical activity and eating habits are still forming. Given the link between parental and child behaviour and weight, it seems obvious that policies to improve childhood health and fitness should seek to engage the entire family and mothers in particular.
However, schools can certainly help to improve the situation. There is an argument for the modification of timetables to introduce more physical activity for those in the 7 to 11 age group, and a stronger emphasis on healthy eating education, which students may be missing out on at home. Aside from increasing the time spent participating in physical activity during the week, schools can play an important role in helping children to improve their body confidence, which is proven to effect engagement in exercise as children mature (Mori, 2003). Self identity, self efficacy and body image are all fundamental in deciding whether a young person continues to participate in sport when they reach adulthood, and this relationship to physical activity is shaped by the time an individual leaves secondary school. The Millennium Cohort Study found that one in seven 11 year old girls are already noticeably unhappy with their appearance; 22 of those classed as obese and 17 per cent of those who were overweight fell into this category, compared with only 10 per cent of those of a healthy weight.
Compulsory Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons have therefore been suggested as a method of improving the physical self confidence of young students. Educating young people about body image, the importance of exercise, what and how much food to eat is an important companion to structured Physical Education in the curriculum. Additionally, targeting the 7 to 11 age group in ensuring adequate time is dedicated to physical activity during the school day will go a long way to alleviate the inactivity problem amongst young people and help to develop a positive attitude towards exercise.
The feasibility of devoting more time to PE may be questioned when considering the additional demands placed on school time. However physical activity programmes do not need to take place specifically during regular school hours. After school groups and activities can provide an excellent opportunity for increasing regular exercise during the week, and help to overcome some of the barriers that children face. Many parents cite lack of time as a major hurdle, so school clubs extending after office hours could potentially involve many working parents.
Many primary schools have already begun to incorporate creative strategies that involve both children and their parents outside of class hours. Walking buses are an excellent way to encourage exercise in families, whilst saving parents money on fuel and decreasing traffic at the school gates. It can be as informal as two families taking turns to walk their children to school, or as formal as a structured route with meeting points and a timetable for multiple families in the neighbourhood. A variation is the bicycle train, in which adults supervise students riding their bikes to school.
The findings of the Millennium Cohort Study further highlight the case for intervention whilst children are young and still developing eating and exercise habits, and provide a more specific window of opportunity for educators, parents and government officials to focus on. In particular, adapting timetables to include more physical activity for the 7 to 11 age group, alongside emphasis on healthy eating and positive body image, will certainly benefit the health of the next generation.