Children becoming more unfit but less fat, University of Essex study finds

Obesity issues in Essex

Obesity issues in Essex - Credit: Archant

Children are getting more and more unfit despite youth obesity levels improving according to new research from the University of Essex.

Dr Gavin Sandercock

Dr Gavin Sandercock - Credit: Archant

A study in 2008 showed child fitness declined by 8% over the previous ten years.

Academics conducting follow-up research last year with more than 300 year six pupils at Chelmsford schools expected children with a lower body mass index (BMI) would do better than heavier children they measured in the earlier study.

However their findings, published yesterday, revealed the decline in fitness was faster than first feared despite improvements in child obesity – with thinner children performing worse in fitness tests than heavier children six years’ previously.

Dr Gavin Sandercock, lead researcher, said: “Our findings show there is no obesity crisis in the schools we went to as less than 5% of pupils were obese and the average BMI is now below 1998 values.

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“This would be good news if BMI was all we had measured, but our fitness tests tell a different story.

“Simply put, if you weigh less it is easier to run and turn so you should do better on our test.

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“But despite finding a lower average BMI in the children measured in 2014 than in 2008 we found the children still couldn’t run as fast, showing they had even lower cardiorespiratory fitness.

“It has got to the stage now that if we took the least fit child from a class of 30 we tested in 1998, they would be one of the five fittest children in a class of the same age today.”

In 2009 the Essex team reported that English children’s fitness was declining at twice the global rate, at 0.8% per year.

However the latest findings suggest fitness has been declining even faster over the past six years with an overall drop of 0.95% per year.

They also found that this time boys’ fitness levels are falling much faster than girls.

The research has led the team to join calls for wider testing of children’s health, instead of relying on a BMI measurement.

Dr Sandercock added: “BMI doesn’t tell us very much about children’s health or lifestyle. Lower values could be due to eating less, doing more, or that one group is taller.

“Seeing fitness falling independent of BMI tells us for certain that the cause of the decline is a lack of physical activity. Being unfit and being obese are just two symptoms of physical inactivity that we can see – what we can’t see is the health problems building up in today’s unfit children.”

Essex County Council, the body responsible for public health, said it took the well-being of children seriously.

Ray Gooding, county councillor for sport and physical activity, said: “The health, wellbeing and fitness of schoolchildren in Essex is of paramount importance to both Essex County Council and Active Essex.

“We are committed to encouraging and inspiring people of all ages to lead healthy and active lifestyles by providing opportunities for them to get involved in sport and other physical activity.

“Earlier this month Active Essex staged the first-ever Essex Special School Games, which saw about 300 schoolchildren with disabilities coming together to celebrate sport, while on June 30 more than 2,000 pupils will compete in the Essex Summer School Games.”

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