10 May 2010

Campaigner against childhood obesity visits University of Essex

Tam Fry visited the University to see its cutting edge work on improving fitness amongst young people

A leading campaigner against childhood obesity has visited the University of Essex to see its cutting edge work on improving fitness amongst young people.

Tam Fry, honorary chairman of the Child Growth Foundation and trustee of the National Obesity Forum, was keen to see how University researchers were working collaboratively with schools and health organisations to find out the best way to improve the health and wellbeing of children.

During his visit Mr Fry watched children from Powers Hall Junior School in Witham undertake a 20 metre shuttle run test as part of the UpStarts healthier lifestyle programme currently being monitored by the University.

Shuttle runs are one of the key tests used to check fitness levels of children and the University has built a reputation for its expertise in this area.

Mr Fry also heard presentations by Dr Gavin Sandercock, Dr Caroline Angus and Dr Murray Griffin from the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at the University’s Department of Biological Science.

Mr Fry said: ‘I was very impressed with the work being done here at the University of Essex and in particular with UpStarts. I would really like to see a project like this, which is of proven value, rolled out across the country.

‘We have just allowed the increase in obesity and decline in the fitness levels of children to happen and we have to dig ourselves out of this mess. People are crying out for projects of this kind which have achieved noticeable successes. If I have any opportunity to promote UpStarts I will do so.’

University researchers are completing work on a study of 152 primary and secondary age children taking part in UpStarts - a year-long programme aiming to use the upcoming London Olympics to inspire healthier lifestyles.

UpStarts was created by Healthy Living Solutions and funded by Mid Essex Primary Care Trust to encourage schools to get their children fitter by setting up regular activity sessions, building links with local sports clubs, organising visits from leading athletes and running lessons on cooking healthier food.

The research team has been looking into the programme’s impact with the University’s Human Performance Unit providing advice on fitness activities and monitoring to the schools taking part.

Initial findings indicate all those taking part became fitter, but the biggest impact was on the youngest children.

Dr Griffin, who conducted the research with Dr Angus, said: ‘It appears early intervention with respect to health and fitness is needed to gain the greatest improvements.

‘This is vital to reduce the long term risk of obesity, poor fitness and inactivity continuing into adolescence and adulthood.’

Researchers found UpStarts increased the cardio-vascular fitness of participants, improved their upper body strength and raised their self esteem

It also showed significant benefits for the physical and emotional development of children with learning difficulties.

Dr Griffin said: ‘Studies of this kind often do not take the time to look at young people with learning difficulites, but we were determined to include them.

‘The effect was very, very noticeable. Our evidence suggests children with learning difficulties would particularly benefit from this type of intervention, as it would improve their fundamental motor skills including hand eye co-ordination.’

Mary-Ann Munford, chairman of Healthy Living Solutions, said: ‘The University is critical to our work. It does the research and provides the evidence base so we can say UpStarts really is a worthwhile intervention.’

Powers Hall School co-head teacher Jane Bass said: ‘Teaching our children about both being active and eating healthily seems to really have worked. Dr Griffin could not believe how much the children had changed – they had grown in confidence and really started to think about how to be more active.’

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