More physically active children in Europe, but obesity rates still rising

Physical activity among children has increased: from 2001 to 2005, the proportion of 11-year-olds who were physically active at least five times a week rose by 6% among boys and 10% among girls. Across the WHO European Region, however, many young people, particularly girls, are not active enough, and levels of physical activity decrease with age.

Being active is important for not only children’s physical health and fitness but also their mental health and academic performance. In addition, it establishes a pattern of healthy behaviour into adulthood.

Obesity in children

In most countries, rates of overweight and obesity are rising, especially where they were relatively low in 2001. They tend to be higher for boys than girls: on average, 16% of 11-year-old boys in the European Region are overweight, compared to 12% of girls. Of the 31 countries surveyed, only Austria, Germany, France and the United Kingdom (England) had declining rates of overweight and obesity in both boys and girls between 2002 and 2006.

Environments that support physical activity

Renewed efforts are needed to prevent and reverse obesity trends in the Region. In addition to activities focusing on nutrition, creating environments that encourage physical activity has broad health benefits.

Measures for sensitive urban planning and sustainable transport include promoting green spaces, traffic calming, bicycle-path networks and safe play areas. These can counteract parents’ fear of letting children walk or cycle to school, and make physical activity part of children’s everyday lives.

Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health

In 2004, the Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health adopted the Children’s Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe (CEHAPE), which includes four regional priority goals to reduce the burden of environment-related diseases in children. The second goal includes ensuring the provision of safe conditions that also facilitate more physical activity among children.

WHO has investigated the Region’s progress towards reaching the regional priority goals. WHO/Europe published the findings in a series of fact sheets that will contribute to discussions at the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, to be held in Parma, Italy on 10–12 March 2010.