Students Staff

30 September 2013

Obesity obsession overshadowing more serious problem

Colchester Campus

Children taking part in fitness testing.

Children taking part in fitness testing.

The national obsession with children’s weight and its possible impact on health may be masking the much bigger problem with their poor levels of fitness, according to new research. 

Early research findings from a study by academics at the Essex has found that while 11 per cent of 11-16-year-olds were obese, more than 20 per cent of them (1 in 5) had low cardiorespiratory fitness. 

Currently, the only population-level health checks English children get is a measurement of their Body Mass Index (BMI) at age 5 and age 10 via the National Child Measurement Programme. 

However, Dr Gavin Sandercock, from the University of Essex, who led the research on over 8,000 schoolchildren as part of the East of England Healthy Hearts Study said: “The reliance on just BMI as a health indicator is inadequate, many children can be fit and healthy with but still have a high BMI – just as we found that many can be very unfit despite being thin.” 

The study also found that while the levels of obesity fell from 13 per cent in 10-year-olds to only 8 per cent by age 15, the levels of poor fitness soared from 15 per cent in 10-year-olds to over 40 per cent in 15-year-olds. 

“The Child Measurement Programme stops at age 10 (in primary schools), and our data on older children show a drop in obesity levels throughout secondary school children which is encouraging,” explained Dr Sandercock. “Unfortunately the results show that poor fitness, which is a much better indicator of overall health than BMI, increases dramatically.” 

The study also found that levels of obesity ranged from 6-20 per cent in the 23 schools surveyed and that low fitness ranged from 4-45 per cent. 

“The huge variation in both measures suggests average figures may be misleading,” added Dr Sandercock. “In terms of health monitoring, the most worrying aspect of our findings was that there was almost no relationship between how many obese children and how many unfit children there were at each school.” 

He said the findings suggest it would be wrong to simply assume that a ‘fat’ school was an ‘unfit’ or ‘unhealthy’ school or that schools in which the children were thinner were healthier. 

“The low correlation between fatness and fitness, the huge variation in both measures between schools and the fact that fatness decreases but poor fitness increases suggest the National Child Measurement Programme is not telling us the full story about our children’s health,” stressed Dr Sandercock. 

Dr Sandercock has advocated the systematic assessment of measures of fitness in schoolchildren since discovering a drop in fitness levels in 2009 that was twice the global average. He said much of the resistance to fitness testing has been focused on not putting children off PE or embarrassing them if they don’t perform well on tests. “But we made our measures using a custom-made testing system (Fitmedia Movement) which children and teachers find enjoyable, easy to use and which displays results that the children can understand and learn from,” he added. 

“Obesity is not rising any more, but children are still getting less fit, the fact that nearly half of year 11 pupils are unfit by the time they leave school is frightening as this is likely to get worse when they stop doing PE – its creating a potential public health time bomb.” 


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