Young and at risk
When it comes to a health report, our kids get a C.
A team of experts got together to take a look at our children’s health. Alas, the news is not good. The Healthy Active Kids Report Card was launched in October 2007 by Discovery Vitality, and the Sports Science Institute. Scientists representing 6 tertiary learning institutions evaluated the best currently available evidence concerning four risk factors for chronic disease – tobacco use, poor diet, lack of physical activity and obesity – among young people in South Africa.

Plump and undernourished

One of the principal concerns that was highlighted in the report card is the high level of overweight and obesity among young people. This relates to the potentially lethal combination of low levels of physical activity and unhealthy eating practices, and resulted in South African children scoring a very disappointing C rating (at average risk for future disease).

More than 30% of South African adolescent girls and nearly 10% of boys are either overweight or obese. Primary schools show a similarly disturbing trend, with 22% of girls and 17% of boys falling into this category. In a combined sample of children under the age of 9 years, an astonishing 17% were already overweight or obese.

Paradoxically, in this same sample, stunted growth due to early nutritional deprivation was present in 19% of the children. This combination of obesity and undernourishment is a challenge for many countries in developing regions.

The risk for obesity in children with stunted growth is twice that for children in general, and carries the potential of significant long-term health risks. While children living in rural areas are at greatest risk of undernourishment, city kids face a higher risk of obesity.

Lack of movement
Physical fitness in young people in urban areas is on the decline. A shocking 40% of children and adolescents get little or no moderate-to-vigorous activity per week – hence another score of C- for activity levels. The most vulnerable groups are children of all ages from disadvantaged communities, and 16- to 19-year-old girls in general.
  • While half of high school students received formal physical education on one or more days a week, almost a third of them did not engage in any form of physical activity during the allotted time.
  • There is an obvious lack of any culture of participating in sports or other physical activities; more than a quarter of adolescents indicated little or no interest. This might be influenced by the high level of crime in South Africa, which makes some communities unsafe for walking, running or cycling.
  • It was found that the most commonly reported leisure time activity among young people is using a cellphone, followed closely by watching television and using a computer. Estimates of screen time and physical inactivity suggested that 25% of adolescents watch more than 3 hours of television per day.

Some ways to address these problems:
  • Appoint sports coaches to serve a cluster of schools rather than a single centre.
  • Promote the government’s national programme for mass participation.
  • Upgrade sports facilities, in rural areas in particular, or structure sharing of facilities between schools, or between schools and communities
  • Develop and implement interventions to combat undernourishment.
  • Creating an awareness among South Africans of the availability of interventions to promote health. Educate young people as to why they should get involved.

Kathleen McQuaide is a sports scientist and health promotions manager at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. Details of the Healthy Active Kids Report Card initiative, are available at

How active are your children? What do you think is the answer to these problems?

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