Nicholas Mazzei is a former Army Officer who now works for BT.
Two weeks ago, I attended the launch of the Birmingham ‘GoodGym’ volunteering run.
This organisation arranges for a fitness instructor to take you and a group of other volunteers to carry out a local, micro-volunteering event. You help a local cause in your community, and you get fit. For free.
At this event, we ran to a local primary school, to the tarmac covered football pitch the local children use, to tidy it up. For some reason, local people had decided it was a fantastic place to smash glass. As you do when you come to a school playing ground.
I was deeply saddened by the lack of facilities for young children to exercise and stay fit. Compared to the playing fields at the school in Somerset I attended (nothing fancy, just a rural comprehensive), and the many lovely playing fields at the schools fellow Conservatives paid to attend, a glass and tarmac-covered pitch is simply not good enough.
Not good enough for a break from class, not good enough to maintain health, and certainly not good enough to inspire children to become future sportsmen and women who could one day win Britain medals and championships.
If the Conservative Party are serious about improving the lives people in the UK, creating a society where social mobility is the norm and opportunities are created for all, then ensuring access to sports and exercise for children is absolutely crucial.
It’s not just about looking good and avoiding a belly,though that’s a large element of it. Obesity blights lives, stops people achieving their goals, causes early deaths – and costs us a lot in the pocket.
Children’s inability to exercise is making the UK’s kids the second fattest in Europe: 19.1 per cent of children aged 10-11 are obese, another 14.2 per cent are overweight, whilst 9.1 per cent of children in Reception are obese and another 12.8 per cent are overweight.
This will have a long term and significant impact on the UK economy, productivity and even our security. Over ten per cent of Britain’s 82,000 soldiers are obese and even more are unable to pass a fitness assessment; this inability to reach a basic fitness standard comes from a childhood of poor diet and lack of exercise.
Childhood obesity affects emotional and psychological health, can create low self-esteem and impacts children’s ability to interact socially.
The lack of cardio vascular exercise even impacts children’s ability to learn. The University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. The manager of the British Triathlon Trust, who works with schools to get children from lower income families into cycling, running and swimming, told me in a recent meeting that girls at one of the schools realised that after training, they were able to focus more on their studies with reduced stress.
This doesn’t surprise me; every instructor at Army initial training knows that the best way to get young men and women to focus on their training when they arrive at the training establishment is to get them training, training and more training. The best cure I have ever seen for ADHD is press ups and running up hills.
Not only is obesity impacting learning and social development, it’s also costing us directly in the pocket. In 2007 the NHS cost of treating overweight and obese patients, along with related morbidity in England, was £4.2 billion. By 2015, it was estimated to be £6.3 billion in direct NHS costs and nearly £27 billion from indirect costs.
Obesity is now one of the biggest causes of cancer in the UK and generates horrific costs to local authorities – nearly £352 million – to manage immobile people.
Combined with mental health issues, overall fitness and health is costing the UK nearly £100 billion a year. The NHS splits out various costs of conditions – depression at £7.5 billion, anxiety £8.9 billion, schizophrenia £6.7 billion, and dementia £17 billion – the reality is physical and mental health conditions are all interlinked.
They place a large burden on our health systems, reduce success in school, and reduce productivity in business. And as I said; making it pretty hard to defend ourselves from invasion.
We should be looking at our leaders in the party to set the example. Reducing alcohol issues and consumption in parliamentarians, banning sugary snacks from vendors in the Houses themselves, and getting Conservative leaders to role model participation in sports and fitness would go a long way to ensuring health and fitness (of the physical and mental variety) is taken seriously throughout the UK.
If Britain wants to reduce the health burden of obesity in the future, it’s time to tackle it seriously. Fund and resource facilities for young children to exercise, and the whole nation will benefit.