Be a sport: give children a better chance

Young bodies often hide the effects of poor diet and lack of exercise, but it may still be shortening their lifespan, according to risk-assessment authors Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter

Sport, as the old ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ adage tells us, is good for the brain. It can also instil focus and self-esteem in wayward youngsters. Photograph: Getty Images

Sport, as the old ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ adage tells us, is good for the brain. It can also instil focus and self-esteem in wayward youngsters. Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 06:00

Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter, the authors of The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger, have come up with an interesting mechanism for calculating the effects of certain lifestyle choices on our life expectancy. Some decisions can be good for you, some bad.

Taking a single alcoholic drink, for example, can add 30 minutes to an adult’s life expectancy; drinking two strong drinks will subtract 30 minutes. Smoking four cigarettes will cut an hour from your time on Earth; five servings of fruit and veg will add two hours back on. Loafing in front of the television for a couple of hours will zap 30 minutes. And so on.

Poor diet and exercise patterns will add up day after day. Blastland and Spiegelhalter reckon an extra inch on your waistline will cost you 30 minutes of life expectancy a day. The worst of it, if you’re a child regularly engaging in poor lifestyle choices, is that it will embed bad habits that are difficult to change.

“If you enter middle age carrying a great mound of tyre around your girth because you’ve been idle all your youth, then you’ve accumulated quite a lot of additional risk,” says Blastland. “The question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Can I start reversing an extra two stone of weight by the time I get to 60?’ You’ll have this adverse health legacy that will be tough to remove.”

According to the Irish Heart Foundation, 22 per cent of Irish children between five and 12 are overweight or obese. The ill effects of obesity on children have been well chronicled. It sets them up for a host of problems later in life, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Hidden sickness

“Often children can be out of shape and unhealthy, but not necessarily overweight,” adds Dr Nicole Avena, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York.

“Young people who are not exercising a lot, who don’t necessarily have a healthy diet, might not be overweight now, but they still have the risk factors for metabolic syndrome. They still have high blood pressure. There could still be things going on inside them that are making them sick, but we just don’t necessarily see.

“The obesity might just manifest when they become a teenager or when they become a young adult. Children – at least some of them – have this naturally protective mechanism where they can stay lean. That kid you probably know who could eat 10 cookies and ice-creams and not gain any weight, who looks like a beanpole, but on the inside that child might not be well.”

It is recommended that adults exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Children need twice this amount. Yet modern society is steadily removing the ways in which children used to exercise unwittingly, such as walking or cycling to school instead of getting the bus or a lift.

Ruth Kilcawley is the nutritionist for the Mayo senior Gaelic football team and Athletics Ireland. She also has two children, who are five and eight. She laments how sedentary children’s lives have become.

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