Thoughts on improving the health of young people

Reading the Sunday Times recently I was struck by an article written by Eleanor Mills who was one of our judges in the WEA National Awards last November. In her piece, Put it down, sweetie, and get cookingEleanor wrote about obesity, poor eating habits and exercise patterns, which are having a damaging impact on the health of young people in our society.

 She quotes some damming statistics such as the fact that many children have developed such sedentary habits that 75% of under 11’s would prefer to stay at home than go out and play in a park and an astonishing 89% say that their first preference for leisure time is watching television or playing computer games. She goes on to say that we can all play a role in influencing young people. The food manufacturing industry could reduce the salt and sugar content in snacks and cereal, and retailers could stop promoting sweets at heavily discounted prices at checkout desks in supermarkets. The government can tax sugary drinks and probably all of these things should be done. In the end however we are talking about consumer behaviour and the way we do or do not look after our health.

 As one of our own Directors of the WEA, Peter Caldwell, points out in his recent blog: 

“Sixty four years after the formation of the NHS, and forty-two years after the Black report on health inequality, the social gap in health and life chances remains massive. There is a seven-year gap in life expectancy between the most and least well off areas and, perhaps more striking, a seventeen year gap in disability-free life expectancy. Shocking really. Surely those figures alone (taken from the 2010 Marmot review, ‘Fair Society, Health Lives’) present a massive case for piling resources into public health measures to engage with and support those who are most vulnerable to life limiting conditions and shorter life expectancy.”

We know that adults, parents and mothers in particular play a major role in influencing eating, exercise and lifestyle habits for young people. It is the observed patterns of behaviour of your parents, carers, and other grown-ups which fundamentally shape your view of when and what to eat, whether you take opportunities for exercise and whether you go out to play. Early tastes and habits are formed which can take a lifetime to challenge or amend and which cause a variety of social and economic problems. As the health service comes under increasing strain, initiatives which prevent ill-health must merit further examination. It is a statistical fact that the most vulnerable groups in our society need the most help.

In WEA classes in the Midlands we have been delivering health and wellbeing classes since April 2001. They have had a proven impact on diabetes / strokes and heart disease. These are all big killers in 2013 and even if they don’t kill you, they severely impact your quality of life and the lives of your loved ones.  70% of our adult learners are women. They say that their primary motivation is to be a better role model for the next generation. Through a combination of their motivation and our adult learning we can and do make a real difference.

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