Tanni Grey-Thompson: We need to beat obesity with exercise

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has spoken out on the issue of obesity.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has spoken out on the issue of obesity.
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I AM particularly interested in childhood obesity. We now have a generation of children in primary school who are more likely to die earlier than their parents because of obesity, so I am a huge supporter of the Daily Mile campaign and structured play.

Measuring children is incredibly important because we must know what we are dealing with. We do not allow our children to do trigonometry without doing basic maths but we try to teach them sport without teaching them basic physical literacy. So there is a long list of things that we could do in schools to improve physical activity and tackle obesity.

Is physical activity the answer to the country's obesity crisis?

Is physical activity the answer to the country's obesity crisis?

Sadly, we are not going to be able to turn back the clock to a time before fast food and coffee-shop pastries on every street corner, but moderation is part of the answer.

Of course it is about what you eat, but it is also about the energy that you expend. I believe obesity and physical activity and exercise should be inextricably linked.

It is a complex issue but we have to look at the whole self, the whole individual, to ensure that they are mentally and physically well. It is not just about the size of our waistlines; it is about the health of our hearts.

A lack of physical activity causes up to 37,000 premature deaths in England alone. Physical inactivity is the fourth-greatest cause of disease and disability in the UK. Globally, it is linked to more than five million deaths per year – similar to the number of lives lost to smoking, and higher than the number caused by obesity.

The key priority should be to tackle the obesity and inactivity crises together, in a way that recognises the complexity of the issue and takes a holistic approach to improving the nation’s mental, physical and nutritional health.

I was delighted with the second Childhood Obesity Strategy, which was recently published. However, what are the Government doing to adopt a comprehensive approach that promotes the nutritional and physical activity sectors working together to tackle obesity in the UK?

Physical activity has a significant benefit for everyone. Not only does it have a major positive impact on weight management; it can also improve the health of those from the youngest to the oldest in society.​

We need to look much more closely at what happens in the workplace. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that workplace absenteeism costs the UK around £29bn per year. That, too, is linked to inactivity.

I am pleased to see that progress is being made in this area. Earlier this year, the Government and ukactive published guidance for workplaces, encouraging them to prioritise the health of their employees and to take part in physical activity.

But we need to do more. We have to find different ways of integrating physical activity into our lives. It might mean going to the gym or getting off the bus a couple of stops earlier. It must be something that is filtered through the day, not something that is done just a couple of times a week. This is about educating people to think about how they can be more physically active and about what they consume.

The guidance is promising but, alone, it will not improve health or activity levels or reduce the prevalence of obesity among the people of the UK. We need a campaign to build on this guidance. There are proposals to expand the cycle-to-work scheme to include a much broader array of health-related purchases. This is important and could generate savings of around £240m per year for the NHS.

Let us think about the danger that we are putting young people in with obesity. I have a 16 year-old daughter. My aspiration for her has never been that, due to obesity or physical inactivity, her life will be shorter than mine. I urge the Government to look at this problem in a joined-up manner so that we can tackle it and help future generations of our young people.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is a Paralympian and a cross-bench peer. She spoke in a House of Lords debate on obesity. This is an edited version.