WHO report: active mobility has key role in tackling childhood obesity

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Promoting physical activity is one of 6 main policy areas identified in the Commission report.
Promoting physical activity is one of 6 main policy areas identified in the Commission report.

Promoting physical exercise, including access to safe walking and cycling, is one of 6 key priorities highlighted by a major World Health Organization report on childhood obesity.

The final report of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO), published on 25th January 2016, warns that 42 million infants and children were overweight or obese in 2013. “Many children today are growing up in an obesogenic environment that encourages weight gain and obesity. Energy imbalance has resulted from the changes in food type, availability, affordability and marketing, as well as a decline in physical activity, with more time being spent on screen-based and sedentary leisure activities”, the report warns. The number of overweight or obese children could rise to 70 million by 2025 if current trends continue, and the rate of increase is 30% higher in low- and middle-income countries than developed countries. The Commission references the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in arguing that “government and society have a moral responsibility to act on behalf of the child to reduce the risk of obesity.”

To tackle this health time-bomb, the Commission calls for high level action by governments, and by all sectors of society, and recommends priority actions in 6 key areas, including a range of policies to promote healthy foods and combat marketing of high sugar food and non-alcoholic beverages; a range of interventions to support pregnant women and parents of babies and toddlers; school-based delivery of health advice, nutrition and clean water, and an emphasis on physical activity; and urban planning policies to encourage exercise and active mobility.

The Commission is clear on the important role of urban design and infrastructure provision in enabling healthy mobility choices, saying:

“Urban planning and design has the potential to both contribute to the problem and offer the opportunity to form part of the solution. Increased recreational space and safe walking and cycling-paths for active transport, help make physical activity functions of daily life.”

“Physical activity behaviours across the life-course can be heavily influenced by childhood experience. Creating safe, physical activity-friendly communities, which enable, and encourage the use of active transport (walking, cycling etc.) and participation in an active lifestyle and physical activities, will benefit all communities. Particular attention needs to be given to improving access to, and participation in, physical activity for children already affected by overweight and obesity, disadvantaged children, girls and children with disabilities.”

Responding to the WHO report, the FIA Foundation’s director, Saul Billingsley, said:

“This analysis by global health experts shows how intertwined public health policies for children need to be. If we are serious about reducing non-communicable diseases across a lifetime we must be serious about tackling childhood obesity which, this report recommends, can be tackled, in part, by providing safe and accessible walking and cycling facilities. Taking this approach to urban planning, together with targeted reduced vehicle speed limits to ensure safe residential streets and routes to school, thereby also reducing road traffic injuries, will in turn encourage and enable reduced vehicle use – particularly for local journeys like the school run – which will reduce local air pollution, which will help to prevent respiratory diseases. Supporting this virtuous circle of child health with holistic policies and engagement through the Sustainable Development Goals and related processes like the ‘New Urban Agenda’ to be agreed at Habitat III, and with evidence from practical applied mobility research, is a priority for the FIA Foundation.”

Read the report of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity