UCL News


How healthy are our children? New evidence from the latest Health Survey for England

16 December 2008

Most children in England are not obese or overweight, meet the government's recommended physical activity targets, don't smoke or drink and think healthy food is enjoyable - although they're not reaching the 'five a day' target - according to the latest Health Survey for England (HSE).

The annual survey, conducted in 2007 by researchers at UCL (University College London) and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and funded by The NHS Information Centre, has its latest results published today. It draws on data from interviews and measurements of thousands of people representative of the whole population.

The HSE 2007 had a particular focus on children, including data from over 7,500 2-15 year olds. Those old enough were interviewed about their knowledge and attitudes concerning key aspects of lifestyle including smoking, drinking, eating and physical activity.

The survey also collected data about the impact of smokefree legislation brought in on 1st July 2007. This indicates that although the number of adults and children smoking had not decreased at this early stage, there were some positive initial signs of a reduction in cigarette consumption and in children's exposure to smoke.

Dr Nicola Shelton, Senior Lecturer in UCL's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and an editor of the study, said:

"Behaviours and attitudes towards personal health formed early in life extend into later childhood and adulthood, ultimately having an impact on health over an individual's lifespan. It's crucial we understand children's attitudes and behaviour about issues such as exercise, diet and smoking because their early experiences have such an influence going into adulthood.

"Although the survey shows a mixed picture for both children and adults, and we're still seeing marked differences in the health of different socio-economic groups, there's quite a lot to be positive about here - for instance, the initial signs that the rising childhood and adult obesity trend could be beginning to level out - although we're not seeing the decline we'd hoped for.

"Another potential positive result is that children's cotinine levels (indicating exposure to tobacco smoke) did not increase after 1st July, when smokefree legislation was introduced. Some people had been worried that the legislation would cause adults to smoke more at home and children would experience greater exposure - our results do not reflect this.

Despite the positives, there's no room for complacency and the momentum to keep improving the nation's health must continue."

Rachel Craig, Research Director for the Health Survey for England at NatCen, and co-editor of the report, added:

"In the 2007 Health Survey we can compare behaviour with knowledge and attitudes, and there are some interesting differences. Like adults, more children know about fruit and vegetable targets than meet them. More children think they are very or fairly active than do the recommended amount of physical activity.

We need to continue making people aware of the targets they should aim for to achieve a healthier lifestyle. Parents are an important influence on their children, so we should make sure the right messages get through to them as well as to children and young people."

The key findings about children from the HSE 2007 include:


* According to BMI measurements, around three in ten boys and girls aged 2-15 were either overweight or obese.

* There are indications that the continuing rise in levels of obesity amongst children may have begun to flatten out.

* Children aged 11-15 classed as obese were more likely to say they want to do more physical activity than those of normal weight.

Physical activity

* More boys than girls met government physical activity targets (72 per cent and 63 percent respectively). For girls, the proportion meeting the target steadily declined after the age of nine.

* Most boys and girls aged 11-15 perceived themselves to be either very or fairly physically active compared with other people their age (90 per cent and 84 per cent respectively). This includes 68 per cent of boys and 67 per cent of girls in the least active group, who thought they were very or fairly physically active compared with others.

* Girls aged 11-15 were more likely than boys of the same age to want to do more physical activity (74 per cent and 61 per cent respectively). This proportion declined with age among boys, but not among girls.

Diet and healthy eating

* Among children aged 5-15, 21 per cent of both boys and girls reached the 'five a day' target for fruit and vegetables - a similar proportion to adults.

* 63 per cent of boys and 73 per cent of girls aged 11-15 knew that five portions of fruit and vegetables should be eaten each day. However, only 22 per cent of boys and 21 per cent of girls could correctly identify what a portion was.

* Most children aged 11-15 thought their diet was 'quite healthy' (70 per cent of boys and 72 per cent of girls), and only 1 per cent of children thought their diet was 'very unhealthy'.

* The majority of children aged 11-15 agreed that 'Healthy foods are enjoyable', with more girls than boys agreeing with the statement (72 per cent compared with 64 per cent).


* Only 2 per cent of children aged 8-15 reported they were regular smokers (at least one cigarette a week). This was higher among older children, with 8 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls aged 15 reporting that they smoked regularly.

* 20 per cent of those aged 15 had a cotinine level of 15ng/ml or more (indicative of smoking), but only 9 per cent reported that they were regular smokers.

* No differences were found in self-reported smoking behaviour or cotinine levels before and after the introduction of the smokefree legislation in England on 1st July 2007 - this applied to both children and adults. The proportion of children aged 0-12 who were exposed to smoke by a carer for two or more hours a week was lower than in 2006.


* 35 per cent of boys and 34 per cent of girls aged 8-15 reported having experience of drinking alcohol, Frequency of drinking was clearly related to age, increasing from 7 per cent of boys and 8 per cent of girls aged 8 to 79 per cent of boys and 74 per cent of girls aged 15.

* Girls aged 13-15 were slightly more likely than boys of this age to agree that 'People of my age drink to be sociable with friends' (73 per cent and 66 per cent respectively). More than half of both boys and girls aged 13-15 agreed that young people drink because of pressure from friends (56 per cent of girls and 53 per cent of boys).


Notes for Editors

1.) For more information and to speak to the researchers quoted, please contact:

· Ruth Metcalfe in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9739, mobile: +44 (0)7990 675 947, out of hours: +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: r.metcalfe@ucl.ac.uk

· Emma Cutting, NatCen Press Officer on mobile: +44 (0)7912 668664, email: e.cutting@natcen.ac.uk

2.) Summary and full copies of the Health Survey for England 2007 can be obtained from www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/hse07healthylifestyles, or by contacting UCL Media Relations using the details above.

3.) The seventeenth annual Health Survey for England was conducted by health researchers from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL (University College London) and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and published and funded by The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.

A unique source of health information covering adults and children, the Health Survey for England is the most comprehensive heath survey undertaken in England. It is designed to inform national health policy and stimulate research by providing accurate and detailed data about the health needs of the general population.

4.) NatCen is Britain's largest independent social research organisation which aims to promote a better informed society through high quality social research (www.natcen.ac.uk).

5.) Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. In the government's most recent Research Assessment Exercise, 59 UCL departments achieved top ratings of 5* and 5, indicating research quality of international excellence.

UCL is in the top ten world universities in the 2008 THES-QS World University Rankings, and the third-ranked UK university in the 2008 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. www.ucl.ac.uk