Obesity is now recognised as one of the most important public health problems facing the world today.
When adults and children step on the bathroom scales, as a nation, we now weigh substantially more than ever before.
The statistics are startling. In 2014 almost one in five children were classified as obese by the time they started secondary school. Five years on and that figure has jumped to 33 per cent in many areas of the country – and in the capital a new report published by London’s Child Obesity Taskforce has revealed the figure at 40 per cent. Nationally obesity costs the NHS in excess of £6 billion per year.
Is it any wonder that the World Obesity Federation is now defining obesity as a chronic, relapsing disease.
This month London’s Child Obesity Taskforce wrote to the Mayor of London promoting a 10-point action plan to tackle the issue.
The organisation’s report cites a negative spiral of poor health combined with low levels of physical activity, which in turn further reduces health. This deadly cycle means that today more than half of the capital’s entire adult population is overweight or clinically obese. The figures rank Londoners in worse shape and with lower life expectancy than those living in New York, Sydney, São Paulo, Madrid, Toronto or Paris.
In a letter to the Mayor of London Professor the Lord Darzi of Denham, Chair of the London Health Commission, writes: “Our city has too many people who eat too much and exercise too little. We should feel deeply ashamed that London has the highest rate of childhood obesity of any major global city. Obese children become obese adults – facing a lifetime of poorer health and quality of life. London’s obesity emergency is a national disgrace.
Obesity impairs lives. It raises the risk of serious physical health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. It drains energy during the day and causes sleeplessness at night. It affects our mental health too – our sense of self-esteem and happiness – and can stop us from leading the lives that we want and fulfilling our dreams for ourselves and our families.”
“Is it any wonder that the World Obesity Federation is now defining obesity as a chronic, relapsing disease.”
The report argues that now is the time to act and that Londoners urgently need help. Although it is self-evident that good nutrition is the foundation of good health, the statistics make it clear that we need help to make better choices with our food and drink.
Local authorities should follow the lead of Waltham Forest, Barking and Dagenham, and Tower Hamlets by refusing planning permission for fast food outlets to operate within 400 metres of a school. Other measures that should be adopted include requiring all food outlets should include nutritional labelling on menus and banning smoking from parks and outdoor public spaces.
Each and every day 67 children take up smoking in London. With advertising outlawed they do so inspired by the adults that they see. Statistically, once they start, they continue because of the addictive properties. It’s little surprise that in places where more adults smoke, more children begin smoking too.
Diet, of course, is just one side of the coin – the amount of exercise we take is also key to our health.
Being active is good for us: it helps our physical health, our mental health and our wellbeing. Whilst a sedentary lifestyle has become the default for most of us, the good news is that some simple steps can make a huge difference.
There is compelling evidence that there are huge health benefits from taking around 10,000 steps a day – better fitness, lower cardiovascular risk and better mental health too. For the average Londoner, this would represent an extra two miles walking each day. And London is a great city in which to walk.
Getting London walking requires joint action from employers, the Mayor, local councils and Transport for London. It requires better information and labelling on infrastructure and in the streets, and campaigns to encourage active travel.
Yet encouraging walking can only be the first step: Londoners should also be given positive incentives to walk. Workplace-based campaigns in Australia, Japan and the US, as well as in the UK, have raised average steps per day from 4,000 to 10,000.
It is in employers’ interests to act since each year London employers lose £1.1 billion due to stress, anxiety or depression. However, employers do not incur direct costs from their employees’ health conditions since the vast majority of Londoners receive their healthcare through the NHS. This means businesses have less incentive to invest in employees’ health than in other countries such as Germany or the US.
So, if we want to get London employers on board with helping to promote health, we need to act to make it easier for them to do so. The public sector should enable, rather than make, investment in employee health.
Increasing the capacity of outdoor playing spaces is critical to the success of plans to improve the health of the nation. Over the last two decades Streetspace has worked in partnership with local authorities in the design and construction of all-weather sports canopies. Smart design can ensure that no matter the weather, sports courts are open and in use. Investment of this nature creates a legacy of improved health for the community.