Healthy weight – healthy life styles. Viv Bennett – Public Health England

Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the key pillars to a long and healthy life. We know the foundations for healthy weight are laid within childhood and the numbers of children and young people who continue to have an unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, weight is a national public health concern.

Childhood obesity and excess weight are significant health issues for individual children, young people, their families and the wider community, including the public health workforce. Obesity can have serious implications for the physical and mental health of a young person, which can then follow them into adulthood.

Obesity can impact on school attendance and is associated with poor psychological and emotional health and poor sleep, with many children and young people experiencing bullying, stigma and low self-esteem linked to their weight. We know obese young people are more likely to become obese adults and have a higher risk of morbidity, disability and premature mortality in adulthood

By using National Child Measurement Programme data of primary school children from the Health and Social Care Information Centre we know that:

  • more than 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they begin school
  • almost 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school
  • obesity rates are highest in the most deprived 10% of the population – approximately twice that of the least deprived 10%
  • obesity rates are higher in some ethnic minority groups of children (particularly Black African and Bangladeshi ethnicities) and for children with disabilities (particularly those with learning difficulties)

The risk of developing many common diseases in the UK can be lowered by making lifestyle changes. Health and care professionals play an important role that can positively help families take action. Action across the young person’s life course is essential to have an impact on childhood obesity and enable positive behaviour change in relation to eating and activity.  Promoting healthy lifestyle choices should start early in life to help to establish healthy habits, rather than trying to support unhealthy behaviours in later life. We know adolescence is a time when young people are subjected to many challenges and indeed their journey to self-determination or more control over their own lives can be a tough time. We also know that between the ages of 10-14 there is significant brain development and a real opportunity to think about behaviour change – a fundamental of public health!

School nurses have an important public health leadership role in the school and wider community. The school nursing service can make a real difference to setting down strong foundations for good life chances and support young people in the choices they make about their health, and to build resilience and autonomy. School nurses, along with other health and care professionals, understand specific activities which can prevent, protect, and promote health and wellbeing and are aware of the resources available.

Obesity and childhood obesity is a significant part of Public Health England’s All Our Health.  “All Our Health is a call to action for all healthcare professionals to use their skills and relationships to maximise their impact on avoidable illness, health protection and promotion of wellbeing and resilience.” (PHE 2015)

Digital badges on healthy eating and active lifestyles encourage the development of positive health skills in a fun way, using the technologies that young people love to use to communicate. Digital badges also offer a new way to value and recognise health skills and behaviours. Using digital badges creates a safe social learning platform for children to share what they make, to challenge themselves with missions and to show their achievements with badges. They help young people realise their full potential by surfacing, capturing and communicating their growing skills. They can build a rich digital profile that can truly represent them, building resilience and autonomy over their own health and wellbeing.

Childhood obesity can have serious implications for the physical and mental health of a child. Public Health England (2015) states “Childhood obesity, and excess weight, are significant health issues for individual children, their families and public health. It can have serious implications for the physical and mental health of a child, which can then follow on into adulthood. The numbers of children, who continue to have an unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, weight is a national public health concern.”

Health care professionals should continue to build on the good work they already do and feel confident discussing nutrition and weight issues with children, their families and adults. To support health professionals, Health Education England and Public Health England have launched a suite of resources aimed at supporting the health care and wider workforce to “Make Every Contact Count”. These resources include training on influencing behaviour change and initiating difficult conversations about health and wellbeing, as well as targeted training for health visitors and school nurses given their unique positioning which enables them to identify weight issues in children early on.

On Wednesday 29th March 2017, Public Health England, with key partners, are hosting a symposium focussing on obesity across the life course, with a clear focus on children, young people and families. The event is aimed at public health nurses, health visitors, school nurses, practice nurses, midwives and commissioners. Young people and the issues they face will be a core feature. The event will focus on promoting wellbeing, through holistic person and population approaches to preventing and tackling obesity, by using the evidence and innovative approaches to support local delivery.

With nearly a third of children aged 2-15 overweight or obese, tackling childhood obesity requires us all to take action. The benefits for reducing obesity are clear – it will save lives and reduce inequalities.


Viv Bennett is Chief Nurse at Public Health England.



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