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Using sport and physical activity to tackle obesity

Following the Prime Minister’s comments that the government intends to launch a plan to tackle obesity, our Chair Nick Bitel sets out how important the role of sport and physical activity could be in tackling this challenge.

01st July 2020

by Nick Bitel
Chair, Sport England

After the Prime Minister’s comments about tackling obesity, I wrote to Health Secretary Matt Hancock to offer our support and expertise.

Sport England hugely welcomes the government’s direction of travel in prioritising tackling obesity and all of the associated challenges it brings, including significant pressure on the NHS.

We have sent across proposals to the government that could support this work which we are particularly keen to be involved in because we believe that we have relevant insight, expertise and solutions to do so.

A group of women train for netball in an indoor hall.

While diet and nutrition are clearly two of the most important factors in tackling obesity, our view is that getting adults and children more active through sport and physical activity must be a key part of any overall public health strategy.

As the chief medical officer’s (CMO) physical activity guidelines set out last year: "In adults, there is strong evidence to demonstrate the protective effect of physical activity on a range of many chronic conditions including... obesity. Regular physical activity can deliver cost savings for the health and care system and has wider social benefits for individuals and communities."

Activity levels

We know from our work in tracking activity levels during lockdown that coronavirus (Covid-19) has massively disrupted people's ability to exercise, but this is especially true for children and young people, where we know that the pandemic is in danger of affecting the health and wellbeing of the next generation well into the future.

The statistics bear this out. Some 47% of children were active for an average of more than 60 minutes per day before the pandemic, but amidst lockdown, the proportion of children doing this and meeting the CMO’s guidelines for physical activity, has fallen drastically to just 19%.

With inactivity estimated to cause one in six deaths and costs the NHS around £1 billion per year, we’ve been working hard to turn these numbers around and Sport England is well placed to support the development and delivery of a national obesity strategy.


We have a deep understanding of how to design carefully targeted campaigns to support the health and wellbeing of the nation through exercise and activity. We believe a targeted behaviour change campaign which is underpinned by the years of detailed insight and research we have been gathering, would be an excellent addition to the interventions the government is considering – perhaps specifically looking at children and young people where the need is so great.

In recent years, Sport England has built strong partnerships with public health and the NHS, with our Moving Healthcare Professionals programme with Public Health England (PHE) helping healthcare professionals to embed physical activity into their clinical approach.

We’ve worked with PHE and Disney on the Change4Life 10 Minute Shake Up, and we've also been working with NHS England and the National Academy for Social Prescribing to ensure high-quality physical activity advice and support forms part of all social prescribing schemes.

These schemes are all vital in helping to embed physical activity into the lives of people who most stand to benefit and it is this sort of approach we believe can complement the government's undoubted plans to tackle obesity through making food healthier and more nutritious.

Location, location, location

Beyond health, our view is that a place-based approach will be key to the success of any national plan to tackle this. Our 12 local delivery pilots have tested and championed placed-based solutions over the past three years, and working in this way we have seen a reduction in inactivity levels by an average of 2% (more than 70,000 people in gross population terms) across the 12 pilots.

Studies of coronavirus patients in a number of countries have also identified chronic conditions that place even younger patients at risk. Near the top of the list is obesity. This highlights the need to treat obesity not just as a disease, but also as a public health emergency.

Sport and physical activity plays a transformative role in creating a healthy, happy nation, but it is more important than ever that it is put at the heart of the national response to improving people’s health, including tackling obesity, and we are ready to play our part.

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