And if you thought 13 was young to be on a diet, a study by the Professional Association of Childcare in Early Years found that children as young as three expressed dissatisfaction and concern with their appearance and their body.
Our mirrors are ruining our lives and that of our children and that has to stop now. Let me share with you a little story. A few months ago, I went to see a show called Circa on London South Bank. It featured six acrobats, male and female, and they performed for about 75 minutes, and during the show, you witnessed the most incredible feats of athleticism, strength and bravery.
And when the show had finished, something struck me and it actually has nothing to do with the stunts I’ve just witnessed. It has to do with the acrobats physiques. Some of them were outwardly muscular.
Some of them have a layer of fat over their abdominals. And some of them even have puppy fat on their inner thighs. All very ordinary stuff, but from people doing the most extraordinary things. And it struck me then, that we’ve got things wrong.
For many of us, the pursuit of a perfect body means we’ve forgotten about what is really important and that’s the health of our body on the inside. We praise people for their skinny appearance ignoring the fact that potentially they’ve got there through a very unhealthy and restricted diet.
What if we move our focus to what we can achieve with our bodies rather than what they look like? What if we move the focus from fatness to fitness? Good physical fitness is important for many reasons, we know this.
It can protect against injury and strengthen our immune system. It also means we can play sport, take part in daily activities with our kids and socialize in a really healthy setting. It also makes every day things easier like shopping, taking the stairs, walking.
And not only do those everyday things become easier, but we feel stronger and better equipped to try new things. And that’s partly because exercise can be very enjoyable, but it can also take you into your discomfort zone.
And I think that’s a healthy place to be sometimes. I personally take myself into that discomfort zone in a big way, three or four times a year. Because I think it makes me more mentally, physically and emotionally resilient.
When I became very fit, my world literally expanded. And that’s partly because I use exercise to help me through a very dark and difficult time in my life. In March 2012, I was treated for alcoholism.
And exercise became a very corner stone of my successful recovery. Instead of drinking bottles of wine every night, I used exercise to change how I felt about myself. So I could not overstate the power that fitness and exercise have for building resilience, but also changing how you feel about yourself and the world in a really healthy way.
And while I am here, let me debunk a few myths about exercise. The first one is that you need a long time to exercise effectively. Simply not true. A 15 minutes high intensity or heat workout is really effective.
As it is a 20 to 30 minutes faster cardiac session. So a run before breakfast may be. It’s more about the intensity and the quality of your exercise and much less about the duration. Another myth is that you need access to a gym or expensive gym equipment.
And again, not true. Parkrun is hugely popular in the UK. For those of you who haven’t heard about parkrun, it’s a 5 km run that takes place all over the country in parks and it’s entirely free to sign up for.
It’s also very possible to do effective workout in your hotel room or at home using only your own body weight or furniture as props. And let us not forget our daily commute, consider walking whenever you can.
It may takes a while to get your head around, but it requires approximately the same number of calories to travel one mile on foot, irrespective of your speed. So in other words, you burn roughly the same number of calories, when you walk or run.
But the efficiency, of course, comes in how quickly you get to your destination. So walking is a great way to strengthen your bones and joints, maintain good heart health and burn calories. So what’s not to love? And yes, let us talk about fat.
We are obsessed with it. Avoiding fat in our food avoiding fat in general. Fat, we are told, is bad. And indeed too much fat is bad. It can cause metabolic conditions and poor heart health. And obesity affects 1 in 4 children and 1 in 3 adults in this country.
So too much fat is definitively a bad thing. But how we measure body fat has come into dispute. BMI which is a very popular method isn’t as accurate as you might think. And its correlation with body fat can depend on your age, your race and your gender.
So it’s very possible to be slightly obese by these generic standards and still very fit. And I’m arguing that might not be such a problem. While subcutaneous fat or excess of it particularly around the middle can be damaging to our health, what is more damaging is the lack of fitness.
We need a certain amount of body fat in order to be healthy. Studies have shown that people who have that healthy amount of body fat have greater life expectancies than those who don’t. Now I’m not suggesting we ignore the global epidemic which is the obesity crisis across the world.
And I’m not saying it doesn’t need actioning because it does and now. But what I’m suggesting is that rather than obsessing over our scales, we worry more about how we control our weight. Are we depriving our body of valuable nutrients or even the pleasure of food simply to avoid being more active? After all it is physical activity that helps us to prevent cardiovascular disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and even health systemic conditions like Alzheimer.
So I think we need to move our focus from fatness to fitness. Because it’s a lack of fitness that is damaging our children’s health and ours. And let us just take a minute to consider the legacy we are leaving for children here.
The stats are woeful. A recent study found that children between 5 and 7 do an average of 102 minute of PE a week in the schools – 102 minutes. The NHS on its official website recommends that children between 5 and 18 do 16 minutes per day of exercise.
And let us face it, we all know how to get out of our PE at school, right? I didn’t think it was just me. A quick note faked by mom and you are off the hook. Another problem is space. Where I live in south London, there are very few green spaces for children to play in their schools, the playgrounds of concrete and spaces are cramped.
It’s getting harder and harder for kids to move in schools now. And I’m worried because that’s a problem. If they can’t feel what is like to be fitted in a young age, it’s going to be very hard for them to make a pattern of their behavior growing up.
An unfit child is a lot more likely to be an unfit adult. And an overweight child is much more likely to be an overweight adult. And another problem, I think, we need more role models in sport for kids to look up to.
They can’t be it, if they can’t see it. The Olympics were helpful, but the messages contradictory. In the Rio Olympics, many male commentators were more interested in making stereotypical and unhelpful remarks about women’s physiques than they were commentating of their performances, their strength and their stamina.
One NBC commentator was overheard to say the US Women Gymnastics Team looks like they stood about in a mall during their team final. But our roll models don’t just need to be TV celebrities, sports people or famous people, they can be anyone of us.
As parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, neighbors, we all have a responsibility to prioritize our fitness, so that young kids can do the same. Studies have shown in fact that children whose parents are fitter themselves have greater level of fitness that children who don’t.
So I think we need to change our perspective on our bodies and put our priority not on appearances but on functional fitness. Body image problems has been endemic for women for too long a time. But this is a problem that affects boys and men, too.
While young girls tent to externalize their negative thoughts and strive for a thinner appearance, young boys tend to internalize their negative thoughts and strive for a more outwardly muscular look.
And stats show that young boys are increasingly turning to steroids in order to get that bulky look. Whereas young girls tend to emulate celebrity who themselves are airbrushed to look perfect or starving themselves to look thin.
This isn’t about men or women, it’s about all of us. Too many of us have a warped and distorted view on how we look, which is fed into by the advertising industry, the media, the fashion world and, of course, the multi-billion pound weight loss industry.
We need to be much less critical of ourselves and of others. And instead of making our goal a perfect body or a perfect dress size or whatever that means, it should be about getting more active. Let us reconnect with our bodies in a primeval way and make fitness something that we all do because of how it makes us feel.
Perfect doesn’t exist, but happy and healthy does. Thank you. (Applause)