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Exclusive: Jeremy Hunt’s obesity pledge ‘misses the mark’

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Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s pledge to make addressing the “great scandal” of childhood obesity a top priority of this Parliament has been dismissed as ineffective by the boss of one of Britain’s top fitness companies.

In a speech to health leaders in central London this week, the health secretary said tackling childhood obesity would be one of his main aims, with a national strategy to be put in place as part of the Conservatives’ pledge for an extra £8bn a year in NHS funding by 2020. Currently one in five children leaving primary school is clinically obese, and Hunt is eager to impart a public health strategy that lightens the load on an overburdened NHS England – which still needs to find £22bn in efficiency savings to balance the books.

However, the plans were criticised by Les Mills UK chief executive Martin Franklin, who told Health Club Management that investing in the treatment and cure of obesity “completely misses the mark” and believes it will not make any positive impact.

Citing a recent editorial from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) calling for an end to over-zealous clinical interventions by doctors, Franklin said efforts should instead focus on prevention by instilling physical activity as a key aspect of children’s lives from an early age.

“Funding needs to be invested at grassroots level within schools and communities – i.e. leisure and sports centres – places where children can learn a life-long love of movement and be inspired to move more,” said Franklin.

“Physical literacy should be deemed just as important as classroom based achievements and research shows the positive impact activity has on academic results. Instead of just throwing more money at an incurable issue we can prevent the further spread.”

Hunt’s decision to focus on obesity over physical activity has dismayed many in the sphere of public health, particularly given that a recent University of Cambridge report that found physical inactivity is killing twice as many Europeans as obesity.

It also appears to go against the findings of March’s landmark Health Select Committee report in which Dr Sarah Wollaston MP called on medical professionals to harness the “extraordinary benefits of exercise in improving physical and mental health” to prioritise prevention as a public health strategy.

Steven Ward, executive director of ukactive, welcomed Hunt’s comments, but said the aims must be backed up by a properly implemented strategy and a focus on investment in schemes delivering physical activity.

“We must elevate inactivity as a top tier priority in its own right. Independent of weight, inactivity needs to be a top tier priority due to its wider impact on health,” said Ward.

“This government must take the opportunity to treat the root cause of lifestyle related health conditions such as diabetes, not its physical manifestation in obesity.”

Follow the author on Twitter: @JakPhillips

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Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s pledge to make addressing the “great scandal” of childhood obesity a top priority of this Parliament has been dismissed as ineffective by the boss of one of Britain’s top fitness companies.
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Jeremy Hunt said he will 'put in place a national strategy to reduce diabetes and particularly childhood obesity' / Department of Health