An anti-obesity programme in UK schools had no noticeable effect on children’s health, a University of Birmingham study reports.

More than 600 children at West Midlands primary schools took part in a year-long anti-obesity programme.

The programme, ‘West Midlands ActiVe lifestyle and healthy Eating in School children’ (WAVES) involved mainly exercise and dietary changes.

These included a daily opportunity to do 30 minutes of extra exercise at school, a six-week healthy eating and exercise programme in association with Aston Villa Football Club, healthy cooking workshops once a term for families and regular information to families about local physical activities.

At the beginning of the programme, height and weight was recorded for each child, along with other measurements relating to body fat, diet and physical activity levels.

Results were compared with those of 700 children who did not take part.

The study, published this week in the British Medical Journal, reports that when the researchers followed up the children 15 and 30 months after the programme finished, there was no significant difference in the participants’ body mass index (BMI) or activity levels, compared with those not taking part.

The researchers conclude that wider family and societal influences may have a greater role to play than any school-based programme in the fight against childhood obesity, and even suggest that ‘nudge’ interventions (such as financial incentives for families to effect behavioural change) might be useful.

“Although wider implementation of this intervention cannot be recommended for obesity prevention, the lower cost components could be considered by schools to fulfil their mandated responsibilities for education on health and wellbeing.

“Within the context of the wider evidence, it is likely that any effect of school based educational, motivational, and skill centred interventions on obesity prevention is small,” they write.

In a linked editorial, The failure of anti-obesity programmes in schools, Professor Melissa Wake, paediatrician and scientific director at the GenV initiative in Victoria, Australia, says the findings from the WAVES study are important.

“Common sense approaches endorsed by governments worldwide mainly comprise universal, primary and secondary care strategies to motivate, educate, and facilitate lifestyle change,” she writes.

“Unfortunately, these have largely failed a generation of children. Publication of null trials in high impact journals could perhaps help break the cycle of policy makers continuing with ineffective educational preventive approaches that can never hope to greatly impact on the obesity epidemic.”

“It is time to step back, take stock, carefully examine longitudinal data from contemporary children, and generate new, solution-focused approaches that could maximise health gain and be rigorously and speedily tested,” she writes.

Excess weight in childhood is an international concern, affecting around 41 million children under the age of 5 years. In the UK, around a quarter of children start school overweight and one in ten five year olds is obese.

By the end of their primary school years however, one in five is obese, highlighting the importance of healthcare interventions at this stage of life.

Closer to home, The New Zealand Health Survey 2016/17 found that around 1 in 8 children (aged 2–14 years) were obese (12%) and a further 21% were children were overweight.

The New Zealand government is currently reviewing national health targets in a range of areas, including childhood obesity.

One goal set out last year was that 95% of obese children identified in the B4 School Check programme will be offered a referral to a health professional for clinical assessment and family-based nutrition, activity and lifestyle interventions.

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