Marketing of unhealthy foods is a major factor in the growth of childhood obesity.

New world report on obesity has implications for physical therapists, says child health group

All six recommendations to governments in the World Health Organization’s report on childhood obesity are relevant to physical therapy, and should prompt professionals to consider their role in prevention and treatment. 

That is the view of the International Organisation of Physical Therapists in Paediatrics (IOPTP), a WCPT subgroup, responding to the final report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity – a two-year review examining how to reverse the rising trend of children aged under five becoming overweight and obese. There are at least 41 million children in this category worldwide, with the greatest rise coming from low- and middle-income countries.
According to the report, many children are growing up in environments which, influenced by globalisation and urbanisation, are encouraging weight gain and obesity. It identifies the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks as a major factor in the increase in numbers of children being overweight, particularly in low resource countries.

Sheree York, IOPTP President, said that all physical therapists have opportunities through clinical roles and advocacy to support the WHO recommendations.  “It’s family members who determine the foods and activities of children, and physical therapists working with adults will be interacting with parents,” she said.  “In approaching patient care for specific problems, participating in community wellness activities and advocating for community and government support, we all can contribute to healthier lifestyles for our communities.”

The six recommendations for governments, and the IOPTP response, are as follows:
1.    Implement comprehensive programmes that promote the intake of healthy foods and reduce the intake of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages by children and adolescents. 

“As healthcare practitioners we each have a duty of care to encourage healthy nutrition in our paediatric patients,” said Grace O’Malley, IOPTP Treasurer and child obesity spokesperson. 

2.    Implement comprehensive programmes that promote physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviours in children and adolescents.
“Physiotherapists should be actively engaging with policy makers so that they are included in the design, implementation and evaluation of physical activity interventions – as often key issues such as limitations to fundamental motor skill, underlying biomechanical issues or breathing difficulties are not considered.”
3.    Integrate and strengthen guidance for non-communicable disease prevention with current guidance for preconception and antenatal care, to reduce the risk of childhood obesity.
“Physiotherapists should work with their adult patients to ensure they are reaching the recommended levels of physical activity, as parental activity levels are often associated with child activity levels. Of particular importance is the involvement of physiotherapists in the antenatal period.”
4.    Provide guidance on, and support for, healthy diet, sleep and physical activity in early childhood to ensure children grow appropriately and develop healthy habits.
“Physiotherapists have a role in the promotion and support of healthy movement and sleep from infancy to young adulthood and should actively engage in policy planning and intervention delivery.”
5.    Implement comprehensive programmes that promote healthy school environments, health and nutrition literacy and physical activity among school-age children and adolescents. 
“Physiotherapists should be actively engaging with policy makers so that they are included in the design, implementation and evaluation of physical activity interventions.”
6.    Provide family-based, multicomponent, lifestyle weight management services for children and young people who are obese. 
“Physiotherapists play a crucial role in assessing the physical fitness of children who are obese and thereafter planning a tailored treatment plan to address physical limitations and promote health-enhancing activity and therapeutic exercise.”
The full IOPTP response can be downloaded from their page on the WCPT website. The organisation is also conducting a survey to explore the involvement of physical therapists in the area of childhood obesity and inform the future work of IOPTP.