Merit in physical health policy

Many readers will remember the pure joy of tearing around the playground, playing bullrush, chucking balls about and generally working up a puff before trudging back to learn how to read and write and do ’rithmetic before eventually emerging, head full of learning, to rush off to sport practice.

‘‘They were the days,’’ say we as we tut-tut about this new generation of children whose heads seem permanently buried in tablets, mobile phones and various other devices that keep them tethered to various forms of absurdly named social media when they ought to be outside getting grazed knees.

This increasingly sedentary life cannot be healthy — though it seems unavoidable as so much of the world in which they live and learn moves slowly but intractably online — and it is becoming increasingly easy to find the statistics to add significant weight to such concerns.

Childhood obesity is on the rise as our children spend more time away from physical pursuits, as the price of healthy food rises and as time — and cash — poor parents struggle to provide healthy alternatives to the sort of lifestyles that add pounds while removing so many of life’s opportunities.

Unicef says 39% of New Zealand children are either overweight or obese while a recent University of Auckland study found overweight youngsters were not altogether active: a third of them spent more than three hours a day, outside school, watching a screen. Some 90% of children are not exercising to the level the World Health Organisation considers healthy.

Successive governments identified obesity as a looming crisis as they allocated funds to buy bigger hospital beds and paused at the point of seriously considering fat taxes, sugar taxes and whether GST should be dropped from foods and even services that encourage healthier living.

Even so, the state provides some interventions to try to limit the epidemic’s spread. The B4 School Check can identify and offer support to overweight children, and a universal school lunch pilot programme will provide healthy meals while feeding children who might not get at least one square meal a day.

They are good responses, but they ought to be considered only part of a vast tapestry of responses that help make health and wellbeing a cornerstone element of a child’s development. We should be doing all we can to make healthy choices achievable and second-nature.

Of course, ‘‘we’’ in this context means parents, society-at-large and the apparatus of government we can influence to make this happen. This means we have to encourage the Government to do our will: that means we need the help of a benevolent nanny state.

This notion would ordinarily spook our right-of-centre parties, which have called banning plastic labels nanny-statism and the way indicators for the Living Standards Framework were developed as belying the Government’s social engineering ambitions.

But the National Party may have stumbled upon something with a plan reportedly part of its soon-to-be-released health policy, to make it compulsory for all school children to exercise for 15 minutes each day, running or walking 1500m to maintain activity as part of what might otherwise be a relatively sedentary day in the classroom.

The Daily Mile is run in about half of Scotland’s primary schools and has been introduced, without the influence of politicians, at a handful of New Zealand schools.

The programme has significant merit. A recent study found it was effective at increasing levels of daily moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity, reducing sedentary time, increasing physical fitness and improving body composition. Children were more alert, and they were better for it.

New Zealand may be better for it, too, if that and other programmes successfully reinforce healthy attitudes in our young people. Just as it was decades ago, it is fair to say not all children and not all parents are able, or choosing, to make wellbeing central to personal growth and education.

It is disappointing the state — that is, our resource-strapped schools and our overworked teachers — must take the lead and set aside class time to teach children to physically engage with the outside world, for their own health and learning.

But we cannot continue to wait for all parents to have the means, or for the internet to crash, to make it happen.

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