Does being told to 'sit still' as children set us up for a lifetime of obesity?

It's time to stop telling children to sit still and stay quiet, according to a group of MPs, peers and fitness experts.

The group, co-chaired by former children's television presenter and politician Baroness Floella Benjamin, has released a report that calls for a 'significant shift' in attitudes towards children.

The report's lead author (former New Zealand Prime Minister) Helen Clark said: “We need a national campaign to stop the rot.”

She added that existing government initiatives - such as the sugar tax set to be initiated next year, were welcome but that the biggest problem - the one not yet being adequately addressed, was physical inactivity.

Do we need a cultural shift to stop the obesity endemic?

In the UK we have a culture of sitting still. In fact sitting cross-armed, cross-legged and silent is one of the first lessons we learn in school. Why? Because sitting still is seen as an indicator of obedience and attentiveness. It is the first developmental step in controlling the natural impulses of young children, and it's a lesson many of us take into adulthood - much to the detriment of our health.

“Young children’s physical activity should be seen as the norm; something to be positively encouraged every day," the report states. “Linked to this, identification of a ‘good’ child as one who sits still - as opposed to a happily mobile child, need to be resisted and challenged.”

Worrying statistics

According to recent NHS statistics, one in 10 children are obese by the time they start primary school. By the time they move onto secondary school, it's one in five.

Three-quarters of parents in Britain said their children spend just one hour or less playing outside each day. This is the same minimum outdoor time granted to prison inmates.

Schools should encourage physical activity

The report supports the 'Daily Mile' scheme, a programme introduced in Scotland in which school and nursery childen are encouraged to walk or run a mile throughout the day - before or during school.

It also calls for children's television to introduce 'exercise cues' to get children off the sofa and moving around.

While the report commends these programmes, it also says: “Planned physical activity programmes are valuable, but a cultural shift would treasure the young child’s natural inclination to be physically active."

What we really need, is a change in the way we think.

Jack Shakespeare, Head of ukactive Kids, said: “Children are born to move, but today’s youngsters are instead fed a staple diet of sofa play and screen time, while being starved of outdoor activities.

“For too long we’ve been telling children to sit still and stay quiet, but we need to rip up the rulebook and encourage children to be up and active at every opportunity if we are to reverse the alarming decline in physical activity levels.

“This means shaking up the school day to include active commuting, standing lessons that bring movement into the classroom and simple things like ditching the ‘no ball games’ signs and telling the kids that they should be running in the corridors.”

Taking bad habits into adulthood

Children may get less free active time than prison inmates, but according to the latest statistics, office workers are more sedentary than seventy-year-olds.

Staying fit and healthy in an office is, unfortunately, a challenge. The 'norm' is sitting for hours at a time at a workstation staring at a computer screen. A culture of presenteeism is rife - the idea that being present at your desk is an indication of productivity.

By condoning this culture of presenteeism, we are all fueling an obesity endemic that's costing Britain billions. The cultural shift may well start with our children, but it has to move into adult life too. We were never meant to sit still at a computer all day. We were meant to move.

Thankfully, many employers are starting to implement active working initiatives in daily office life. We're pleased to see that our clients are becoming increasingly open to products like sit-stand desks and ergonomic chairs that encourage 'active sitting'.

Starting an active working initiative doesn't have to be costly. It starts with communicating the idea to staff and you can do this by making use of our free resources.

Head to our active working page for more advice and to find our information pack.