Schools are not the answer to childhood obesity epidemic, study shows

CREDIT: This story was first seen in The Guardian
Childhood obesity programmes in schools are not the answer to the epidemic affecting the UK, according to researchers who say much wider local and national action is needed, including curbs on the advertising of junk food, The Guardian reports.
A major obesity programme introduced into more than 50 primary schools in the West Midlands has failed to have any significant effect on children’s weight. Children were given a year of extra physical activity sessions, a healthy eating programme and cookery workshops with their parents. Families were invited to activity events, including sessions run by Aston Villa football club.
But at the end of 30 months, there was no difference in obesity between those children who took part and those who did not.
The government’s childhood obesity plan, launched from Downing Street in January last year, placed great emphasis on increasing sport and other activity in schools. A number of school-based obesity programmes have been introduced around the country, focusing on increasing physical activity and improving children’s diet in school.
But, says the team from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research, the negative results from their large study published in the British Medical Journal are in line with what has been found elsewhere; schools may have a role to play but can only be part of the answer to the obesity problem.
“We need to look at ways that we can really engage communities in this agenda, change our local environment and look at how national policies can support diet and physical activity,” said Miranda Pallan, one of the team.
Children, she said “are at the centre of lots of layers of influence”. For primary school children, parents and the wider family are key. “They function within their family. Decisions on what to eat and what they do are determined by their family.”
Adults, who may themselves be obese, are influenced by many different things. Local initiatives in communities can help but national policies on food and the environment are also vital.
The government is tackling sugar levels in soft drinks and foods. “There are some good things in the government’s plan but we would argue that there need to be further measures and there are things like advertising restrictions that would be very good to see,” Pallan said.
“If anything what our research highlights is that although schools are vitally important, they can’t do it alone. We need many, many approaches. Each of those will make a marginal difference. We need to look at the whole picture of the causes and tackle each of those areas.”
The institute created and introduced an ambitious programme called West Midlands ActiVe lifestyle and healthy Eating in School children, dubbed Waves. The programme included extra daily physical activity in schools, a physical activity and healthy eating programme in conjunction with local sporting heroes, regular information to parents about local physical activity opportunities, and workshops on healthy cooking for families at schools.
About 1,400 children aged six and seven took part in the trial. At the start of the trial, height and weight was recorded for each of them, along with other measurements relating to body fat, diet and physical activity levels.
The researchers found no significant difference in weight status and no meaningful effect on body fat measurements, diet or physical activity levels at 15 and 30 months in children taking part in the programme, compared with those not taking part.
They suggest that “nudge” interventions, such as using financial incentives to prompt healthier behaviour, merit further investigation. But they conclude that school based motivational, educational approaches “are unlikely to halt the childhood obesity epidemic.”
Prof Melissa Wake, paediatrician and obesity expert from Victoria, Australia, says in a linked editorial that it is time to step back and take stock. The important findings of the trial “could perhaps help break the cycle of policymakers continuing with ineffective educational preventive approaches that can never hope to greatly impact on the obesity epidemic.”
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