SA kids get D for healthy living

19 July 2014

Too much fast food and television and not enough outdoor play has resulted in a decline in our children’s general health and wellbeing. This is according to a recent countrywide survey done by Discovery Vitality.

Too much fast food and television and not enough outdoor play has resulted in a decline in our children’s general health and wellbeing. This is according to a recent countrywide survey, the 2014 Healthy Active Kids Report Card, done by wellness programme Discovery Vitality.

The study builds on the foundation of previous report cards from 2007 and 2010using peer-reviewed research findings from the past five years and compares the different areas to see whether South Africa has improved.

The scientific panel comprised academics and experts from six universities, the Medical Research Council of South Africa, the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa and Discovery Vitality.

What are the results?

While there are promising improvements reflected in the 2014 report card: fewer children are going to bed hungry and more are physically active at school, overall not nearly enough is being done to help children eat better and exercise more.

Overall South Africa has slid from a C- in 2010 to a D grading in 2014.

  • At best only 50 per cent of learners are active enough.
  • More than half of children don’t have access to play equipment or recreation facilities.
  • Children spend more time in front of screens, large and small. Kids watch almost three hours of television on weekdays and even more on weekends.
  • According to the research fewer than 60 per cent of South Africans have food security.
  • Poverty and escalating food prices remain a barrier to healthy eating.
  • Fast-food and soft-drink consumption increased at alarming rates: more than two thirds of adolescents eat fast food at least three times a week, and as a nation South Africans drink three times the global average of certain soft drinks.
  • Even in families where resources are limited children buy food at the school tuck shop or from informal vendors. Few school tuck shops offer healthy choices.
  • Obesity rates are up from 2010: 27 per cent of girls and nine per cent of boys aged 15 to 17 are overweight or obese.

For the first time, the report reveals how South Africa stacks up against 14 other countries when compared on nine health indicators. South Africa is in joint last place in sedentary behaviour, towards the bottom of the countries surveyed for school healthy lifestyle support and in the middle for organised sports participation, overall activity levels, active transport and community support. South Africa has been ranked near the top in terms of government strategies to promote healthy lifestyles in children; this suggests a policy-implementation gap.

“The information in the report card refers to children aged six to 18 years and provides an evidence-based benchmark and advocacy tool to help promote healthy habits. In order to enhance and protect our children’s health we have to know where we are, and this data gives us that crucial starting point. It should also inform health policy and programmes going forward,” says Vicki Lambert, a co-author of the report and professor of human biology and head of the division of exercise science and sports medicine in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town.

Noncommunicable diseases account for more than a third of all deaths in South Africa, with notable increases in the risk factors of inactivity and obesity. These trends aren’t unique to adults. “Children are increasingly affected by chronic diseases of lifestyle, therefore there is an urgent need to prevent physical inactivity and obesity in young people too,” said Dr Craig Nossel, head of Vitality Wellness at medical aid and insurance company Discovery, a sponsor of the advocacy document.

Patterns of rising obesity and inactivity in urban South African youth mirror global trends and have led to the shocking prediction that children born from the year 2000 onwards might, for the first time in many generations, have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. It’s estimated there are almost 19 million children in South Africa.

“What’s clear from the 2014 Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card is that it is time for parents to step up.  Many parents in South Africa seem to be out of touch with their children’s dietary practices, including how pocket money is spent. In addition there was remarkably low engagement with school sporting events as parents struggle with the competing priorities of a work-life balance,” said Lambert.

While there are exciting and promising initiatives in South Africa, such as “open streets” (an initiative which temporarily closes streets so people can use them for socialising, dancing, walking and so forth), Parkrun (which organises free, weekly 5 km timed runs) and a number of school-based interventions, as well as major government investment in school-based sports activity, there’s still a long way to go.

The way forward

When asked for a future vision for the next report card in 2016 the Scientific Advisory Group gave the following recommendations:

  • Primary school children should ideally be weighed and have their height measured on an annual basis, along with an annual health-related fitness assessment;
  • Teachers should be provided with training and support to promote physical activity and deliver physical education in the curriculum.
  • School tuck shops should be provided with national guidelines, and compliant schools recognised and acknowledged;
  • Policy action should be taken by government with respect to the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages to children;
  • Parents, communities and nongovernment organisations should advocate for “safe streets” and equitable access to      healthy foods, parks and recreational space;
  • Intersectoral partnerships between government departments such as health, basic education and sports and recreation, as well as with nongovernmental organisations and the private sector will help to close the implementation gaps.

The Scientific Advisory Group of the Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card and its sponsors, Discovery Vitality and the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, urge all South Africans to step up in every way they can to create a healthier future for our children and youth.

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