Cyclists racing in Otley

Cycling to prevent childhood obesity

Cycling is a fun, healthy activity for both parents and children. It burns calories helps reduce carbon emissions, promotes an active lifestyle and can become a lifelong hobby.

Cycling at 5mph for 30 minutes can burn over 150 calories (even more if you’re carrying some excess weight). Cycling with children will give them a great workout, and can definitely help combat childhood obesity, which is a rapidly developing problem in the UK.

© Thomas Jeffries

It’s estimated that 24% of adult men and 26% of adult women are currently obese, whilst 30% of children are overweight and 14% – 20% are obese.

One in four reception children are overweight or obese when they start school, with one in three 11 year olds being overweight or obese when they leave primary school.

Obesity isn’t just a problem for children when they’re young; unless they lose the weight, it can stay with them all their life. This can lead to heart disease, diabetes and sleep apnoea, amongst other health concerns. Obese teenage girls have even had pregnancy complications due to their weight. 3,806 obese children were admitted to hospital in 2009 for problems caused by their weight.

This rise in levels of obesity has changed people’s perception of their children’s weight. Doctors are seeing a growing number of parents seeking advice for their “underweight” children, when they are actually a healthy weight. This worrying trend shows that certain people are beginning to view being overweight as normal.

Dr. Peymane Adab, Senior lecturer in Public Health & Epidemiology at the University of Birmingham, told Canopies UK that: “Overweight parents are the biggest risk factor [in childhood obesity].” Overweight parents are likely to have overweight children, and “children mirror their parents’ behaviour.”

She also added: “Habits that lead to obesity are established before the age of 11, and these habits can track into adulthood.”

We are already seeing the “finish your plate” mentality resulting in children being unable to tell when they’re full, which is adding further fuel to the fire of childhood obesity. “Parents are confused about portion size” says Dr. Adab. “Around half of overweight children go on to become overweight adults.”

So what can be done about this? The solution is unsurprisingly split between two factors – diet and exercise.

It’s a parent’s role to control their child’s diet and ensure they’re getting the food necessary to build a healthy body, but exercise needs to be encouraged too. Many children love scooters and bikes. These promote a healthy, active lifestyle and help to prevent obesity, also helping to improve a child’s quality of life, improve their immune system and even their academic performance.

A 30 minute daily cycle ride can burn up to 11 pounds of excess fat a year. This can be reason enough for parents to want to cycle, and get their children into cycling too. If that half-hour cycle trip was to-and-from school, this would be an ideal way of getting parents and children into the habit of doing exercise.

The infrastructure in the UK is not really geared up for cyclists, and this is something that needs to be changed. One of the main reasons people don’t ride bikes is because they’re scared of the road. Changing the roads to facilitate more cycling is a great way to encourage children to cycle more, hopefully leading to less obesity. It is certainly something that has worked in the Netherlands, where the roads are far more suited to cyclists and only 13% of children aged 5 to 16 are overweight – less than half the number in the UK.

© Thomas Jeffries

Cycling to school is not the only way parents and children can cycle together; BMX racing has been providing children and parents alike with a fun, energetic form of cycling for over 30 years, and is a great form of exercise.

Johnathan Hearn, Editor of 2024 BMX Magazine, says “parents cycling with their children, particularly doing BMX racing, can be a great way of keeping fit and losing weight. Often you see parents getting their children into BMX from when they can first start to ride a bike, and this keeps both the parent and child fit and happy.”

© Thomas Jeffries

Ian Thewlis of the Bradford BMX Bandits and co-author of BMX Racing says “Everyone knows that sport or active leisure activity is the best way to stay in shape – but which should you choose?

“Cycling has to be the number one choice, and here is why:

  1. Most kids already have a bike.
  2. If you need a bike prices can start as low as £10 for a second hand machine.
  3. Once you have the bike only further costs are maintenance, yet even a poorly maintained bike will probably get you where you are going.
  4. There is a huge network of official cycling routes now, both on and off road, along with an ever growing number of clubs that cater for all cyclists, complete with qualified coaches, leaders and trainers.
  5. You can cycle almost anywhere at almost any time, from a 30 minute tootle through the park to a family day out ‘at the races’.
  6. If you do get into racing there is a huge choice; don your lycra and take on the roadies, slip into baggy shorts and T-shirt for MTB, or kit yourself out in MX pants and body armour for a spot of thrilling BMX.  Most disciplines will have opportunities for racing from 4 year old!  There is never an upper age limit.
  7. Cycling can very easily become a lifestyle, not just a weekend hobby.

“For adults and children alike getting involved with cycling can improve your fitness, social life, confidence – and the best bit is you have fun while doing it.

“For new riders who already have weight concerns, do speak to your doctors, however cycling, like walking, is considered a low impact activity.  You can set your own pace, distance and route.  Such flexibility allows you to get fitter in your own way, in your own time.”

Rob Cassidy, Marketing Manager at Canopies UK adds: “We wanted to raise some of the key issues at the moment and the health of people in general is something that we are keen to help promote.

“Canopies UK works with a number of schools around the country each year helping to upgrade their facilities through outdoor areas and custom built bicycle shelters and so we like to stress the impact that a healthy lifestyle can have on not only education but also personal and social aspects too.

“It is clear that in the days of technology, children are spending more time indoors watching TV or playing on games consoles. It is very alarming that latest research and statistics indicate that children may die younger than their parents.

“The legacy of the Olympics and Tour de France success of Sir Bradley Wiggins, along with the Tour de France heading to the UK next year, has helped to inspire the latest generation of children. We feel it is necessary to continue promoting this in order to maintain that legacy into the next generation and beyond.”

Obesity, especially in children, is a problem which we all need to tackle; parents and schools both need to deliver better education on portion sizes and the correct foods to choose, as well as encouraging their children to exercise. The benefits of proper diet and exercise habits are far wider than just preventing obesity and, taught early enough, can stay with a child for the rest of their life.

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