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British children among world’s worst for exercise and healthy eating

Children in England and Wales are among the most inactive in the world, according to the World Health Organisation.

In a study covering 44 countries, England, Wales and Scotland perform poorly on markers such as brisk walking, while some pupils miss breakfast, as experts warned day-to-day exercise was “largely disappearing from young people’s lives”.

While there have been improvements in children eating daily fruit and vegetables, they are still not consuming enough to meet healthy eating recommendations.

The survey studied children aged 11, 13 and 15 living in Europe, Central Asia and Canada.

It included more than 4,000 children in England, 4,000 in Scotland plus children in Welsh schools.

Thirty per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys in England were inactive across all age groups surveyed, while the figure in Wales was 27 per cent for girls and 17 per cent for boys.

In Scotland, 21 per cent of girls were inactive alongside 12 per cent of boys.

Below Romania and Poland

By age 15, just 11 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys in England did at least 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, which can include activities such as brisk walking, cycling or rollerblading.

The figure was 7 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys in Wales and 12 per cent of girls and 21 per cent of boys in Scotland.

The results put England and Wales near the bottom of the global table below Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Norway and Croatia.

Things are better for more vigorous activity, such as team sports, but the UK still performs below the average for all countries in the study.

Dr Jo Inchley, the international co-ordinator for the study, from the University of Glasgow, said: “In the UK, we’re consistently low on physical activity.

“We do see relatively high levels of young people involved in what we call vigorous activities. But we’ve got big gender differences and big socio-economic differences.

“At age 15, we’ve got two thirds of boys in the UK, roughly, who are taking part in vigorous physical activity four or more times a week but only a third of girls.

“On more day-to-day moderate to vigorous physical activity, where the heart is beating a little bit faster but it’s not high-impact exercise, that’s largely disappearing from young people’s lives.

“So previously, when young people would have spent a lot of time outdoors playing in the local streets or walking to friends’ houses or going to the park, that figure would have been a lot a lot higher.

“That can have a big impact on young people’s health and wellbeing.”

About 37 per cent of 13-year-old girls and 59 per cent of boys in England eat breakfast on weekdays, while the figure is 33 per cent and 54 per cent respectively in Wales and 36 per cent and 61 per cent in Scotland.

This is below other countries including Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Norway.

Girls in England, Wales and Scotland are less likely to eat breakfast than the average for all countries in the study.

By age 15, just 35 per cent of girls in England eat breakfast daily on weekdays (below average for all countries), as do 51 per cent of boys.

When it comes to fruit, 46 per cent of girls and 43 per cent of boys aged 11 in England eat fruit daily, as do 38 per cent of girls and 35 per cent of boys in Wales and 54 per cent of girls and 52 per cent of boys in Scotland.

Decreases in breakfast consumption

Dr Inchley said: “I think we’re seeing decreases in breakfast consumption over time.

“Breakfast consumption is associated with positive health outcomes and educational outcomes.

“More generally, I think it speaks to kind of healthier eating pattern, which of course then links to overweight and obesity as well.”

She also pointed to stark differences in the report between more and less affluent families.

She said: “Almost twice as many young people from high socio-economic groups are eating vegetables, for example, compared with lower socio-economic groups. That is a massive difference.

“Also, young people growing up in poorer areas may be less likely to be able to access fresh fruit and vegetables, it can be more costly to buy them, and there’s maybe sort of cultural barriers around preparing fresh meals every day and so on.”

She said it was positive that, over time, children seem to be eating more fruit and vegetables and there has been a drop in sugary drinks consumption.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Regular physical activity, healthy eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight are essential elements of a healthy lifestyle.”

The study also found that about a quarter of 11-year-old girls and boys in England think they are too fat, as do 31 per cent of girls and 23 per cent of boys in Wales.