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Healthy body and peace of mind

A study by Carmel Cefai, from the University of Malta’s Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health, which assessed the health and well-being of almost 3,000 children aged between eight and 13 years in selected State, Church and independent schools, paints a depressing picture of lack of exercise, general inactivity and obesity among Maltese children.

Shockingly, the study found that eight- and nine-year-old children lead the most sedentary lifestyle compared to children in 15 other countries. When not at school, Maltese children spent the most of their time doing homework or on the computer. They dedicated the least amount of time to sports or exercise.

Not surprisingly, Prof. Cefai concluded that such an inactive lifestyle was having a profound impact on their quality of life, both now as children and as future adults, increasing their risk of multiple health problems. Childhood obesity is a serious health issue associated with physical complications as well as psychological health problems, such as low self-esteem, anxiety and depression both in the short and long term.

About a third of the children who participated in the study expressed concern over the lack of availability of places where they could play and (contrary to what most people assume about safety in Malta), 20 per cent did not feel totally safe walking in their locality, especially girls and younger children. In the survey and focus groups that followed, worry was expressed about safety issues as a result of crime, heavy traffic and the presence of strangers.

When compared to the same age groups in other countries, Maltese eight-year-olds, in particular, were among the least satisfied with the area they lived or played in and whom they met. High-density population, encroaching urbanisation and shrinking countryside, as well as heavy traffic, were seen as some of the key factors affecting children’s quality of life and their ability to play, socialise and spend their leisure time in a relaxed environment.

In effect, Prof. Cefai’s report makes a plea for the Maltese to incorporate healthy living into their everyday lives from an early age. The statistics show that when it comes to healthy lifestyles and physical exercise, the Maltese are one of the most obese, lazy and car-dependent nations. If nothing is done by the authorities to encourage a healthy physical lifestyle on a nationwide basis, this will cast a long shadow over Malta’s future health.

There seems little appreciation of the importance and economic benefits of maintaining good health by appropriate preventive lifestyle measures aimed at reducing non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and dementia. As the report highlights, a life-long healthy lifestyle starting in childhood reduces the likelihood of the aged becoming a future burden on society. Appropriate lifestyle changes from childhood could reduce the incidence and costs of ill-health in a range of diseases.

The report underlines that exercise is the thread that unites most preventive measures. It is hailed as a “miracle cure” and “best buy treatment” and increasingly recognised as the pivotal factor in reducing non-communicable diseases.

The introduction of appropriate lifestyle changes, including dietary modifications to control obesity, could save Malta’s health service millions of euros annually and, most importantly, enhance the longevity and quality of life of generations now growing up.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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