Today the latest set of statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet were released. They paint an all too familiar picture. Levels of obesity are rising, and levels of physical activity continue to decline – despite last summer’s sporting successes.
The Young Foundation outlined many of these issues in our report Move It, released last October. Levels of physical activity are falling, especially among younger groups and it is increasingly difficult to maintain young people’s involvement in sport.
Much of the recent press focus has been on the ‘Obesity Epidemic’, with calls to limit sales of fast food, fizzy drinks, and changes to the ways that the health service approaches obesity. These are important suggestions and will help those who are struggling with their weight. Breaking the habits associated with unhealthy eating is important. However, we also need a focus on ensuring that young people are, and continue to be, involved in physical activity throughout their lives.
Move It sets out four recommendations: A youth centered public policy, coordinated delivery of sport, changing funding streams, and better data tracking and accountability. These are important in ensuring that physical activity is central to people’s lives. To fight obesity and increase physical activity we need to make physical activity not just about playing sport but incorporated into people’s lifestyle. This means more walking, and less taking the tube. Taking the stairs, instead of the lift. And rather than eating lunch at your desk, taking a walk and getting some fresh air.
There are a number of potentially fruitful innovations in this area – technology such as Nike’s FuelBand, or the FitBit are worn and provide continual feedback to users on their levels of activity. So if you’ve spent the day sitting at your desk it’ll give you that nudge to go for a walk. This supports the research in Charles Duhigg’s great book The Power of Habit.
Duhigg outlines how habits are formed through a simple process of: cue, routine, and reward. This helps to explain why walking past a bakery I can’t help but buy a doughnut – the cue to freshly baked bread, leads to the routine of buying a doughnut, and the reward of the sugary hit. With this understanding we can try to change the habits which often unknowingly govern our behaviour.
The rewards of television, computer games, and other entertainment are a strong pull. So we need to find ways to create the habits in young people to be physically active. This is essential for reducing obesity but also increasing the health and wellbeing of the population.
Continuing on from our Move It report, we are working with Nike to look for practical ways to increase physical activity. Over the next 6 to 12 months we are studying a community sports hub in South London, Lilian Baylis Old School. Since opening in 2006 they have had remarkable success at getting the local young people, a traditional hard to reach group, involved in sport. The impact they have had on the local area has been fantastic.
Our aim in the research is to understand what’s made this hub work – who did what, how and when? From this we plan to produce a route map for other organisations or communities to follow to increase sport’s participation in their area. We hope that this will provide a way to increase the physical activity of the population so that future sets of statistics do not paint that all too familiar picture of declining activity and increasing obesity.