Best Foot Forward…

28th February 2009

As a society we are fatter than ever. We eat the wrong food, and too much of it, and – crucially – we take nowhere near enough exercise. The Commons Health Select Committee warned in 2004 that today's generation of children could be the first for over a century for whom life-expectancy falls. Put bluntly, the children of today could die before their parents, as a result of childhood obesity.

It’s a bleak prediction, and it continues to go largely unheeded – at least, if anecdotal evidence and idle observation are anything to go by. And ‘idle’ seems to be the word. Healthy habits like moderate eating and regular walking need to be formed early, but modern toddlers seem to spend more time being pushed or carried and less time… toddling.

Grace Fuller asked a selection of families how much walking their youngsters do, and discovered that while most agreed that their children needed exercise, achieving it wasn’t always easy. Here, six parents speak for themselves about how they manage – or restrict – their offspring’s first steps towards a healthy lifestyle. Plus – a chance for local families to take part in obesity prevention research.

Beatrice, 30; one son, 3.
It makes me really cross to be judged. I’m sure people are tutting at me when Drew is in the buggy, but whether it’s because they think I’m in their way, or because they think he should be walking I don’t know. But I work part-time, and my hours with him are quite limited, so I tend to throw him in the buggy and rush around to get everything done – so that we can go and have some fun. Active fun, usually.

Bella, 37; one daughter, nearly 2.
We’ve never used a pushchair, and Zoë walks everywhere. I'm really amazed by how little walking other toddlers do… I just never seem to see kids under about four out of their pushchairs. Even when we’re out specifically for a walk, on footpaths, in safe places, other little ones are in buggies, and their parents seem astonished at the idea of getting them out. Wouldn’t the kids like to be running around and splashing in all the puddles? Zoë loves it. She’d be a total nightmare if she didn’t have the opportunity to run off all that energy every day. Don’t other kids need that?

Peter, 43; sons, 3 and 1.
There’s risk involved in letting a toddler walk in a busy town. I take the boys to nursery every day, and it just wouldn’t be safe. Tim [3] would probably like to walk, but actually it’s quite a long way for his little legs, and it’s not really practical. I have to take the buggy for the younger one, anyway, and I wouldn’t trust Tim to stay by my side. There’s too much to distract a small boy, and he’s very into cars. The speed of the traffic terrifies me. And I couldn’t have them both walking. I couldn’t keep my eyes on two of them at once, and Ben [1] would be too slow. Risk and time… that’s the problem. Buggy’s the solution.
Frances, 38; daughters, 7 and 3.
We do need to have some harmony in our daily life, and Lizzie [3] just doesn’t like walking. She’s relentless when she hates an activity. Yesterday we had to walk three hundred yards, from playgroup to the car, and she screamed the entire distance. It needed to be done, and we did it… but tomorrow I’ll take the buggy. It’s just easier.

Jo, 34; one daughter, 6; on son, 3.
I’m lucky, I don’t work, so I can do most things at the children’s pace. My son and I walk with my daughter to school and then walk on to the park or the playground, where he runs around and lets off steam. He’s full of energy, and he hates being confined, but if I take him to the shops I do put him into the trolley and keep him there. I need to be able to concentrate. And when we do the school pick-up, if we’ve had a busy day and he’s tired then it makes more sense to put him in the pushchair. Other people might think he’s being lazy, especially as he’s tall and looks older than three, but he’s my child and I know what he needs when.

Nina, 28; one son, 2.
He has his own ideas about distance. He thinks the shops, about ten minutes away, are too far, and he’d grumble all the way if I didn’t give in and take the buggy, but walking to the park, which is actually further, doesn’t bother him. And he’ll play on the slide and run around, and still have the energy to walk home without a murmur of complaint. So generally I’m led by him. And it’s easier to take him in the buggy to the shops because then I can sling the shopping bags underneath and over the handles, and get everything home easily. I’m dreading the time when he doesn’t want to use it at all. I guess we’ll have to take the car more then.

Watford Toddlers Wanted For Lifestyle Study

World-famous Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children is inviting Watford families to participate in a programme that could lead to a national drive to combat obesity in very young children

A pilot of the ‘Trim Tots’ programme, also involving Watford-based children, produced evidence that giving guidance and advice to parents plays a crucial role in a child’s lifestyle and eating habits now and for the future. Recruits are being sought for a second phase to provide more robust evidence before the scheme looks to gain national funding.

‘Trim Tots’ is run by Julie Lanigan, a children’s dietician at Great Ormond Street: “We constantly see coverage and concern about obesity levels in teenagers, but sadly, by then it’s often too late to intervene and change entrenched habits,” she explains. “Our first pilot scheme proved really beneficial… We use a lot of friendly, cartoon-like characters to convey key messages about healthy eating and being active, and get the children really involved.”

‘Trim Tots’ Phase 2 needs 48 children, so if you’re a parent with children between one and five, and you’d like to find out more and take part, contact the programme co-ordinator Sarah Low on 020 7905 2805.

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