“As councils cut their spending on outdoor spaces and society encourages physical idleness, obesity is becoming an epidemic. Young people now face heart problems, diabetes and other diseases because of their sedentary lifestyles,” said Professor Lamine Mahdjoubi, from the University of the West of England, who chaired the conference.

Delegates heard moving testimony from four mothers from Glasgow who contrasted their experiences of playing in the street with the restrictions placed on children in the city today. “The streets are unrecognisable from our youth,” said Marie Forsyth, of the parents' group To play or not to play. “Now, they are full of traffic, and play spaces are desolate and scarred by drug-taking. We were poor but at least we had a childhood.”

Delegates at the conference identified the need to assess the socio-cultural as well as physical benefits of outdoor play. They found that open spaces were more cost-effective than indoor fitness centres, and were of benefit to a wider range of people. Fitness facilities tend to be exclusive, typically appealing to a segment of the population aged 18-45 who can afford membership and can travel there by car. In contrast, outdoor recreation areas appeal to a wider range of social and age groups and are usually accessed by foot.

Investment on urban parks and open spaces dropped from 44% of local authority spending in 1976/7 to 31% by 1998/9. “Open urban spaces cost £600 million to run for 2.5 billion visits,” said Lamine. “In contrast, the fitness culture costs £400 million for 100 million visits and 80% of customers use their cars to get there.”

“This is a subject that affects us all,” continued Professor Mahdjoubi. “The cost of obesity will have to be met ultimately by society – it is a time bomb waiting to go off, like climate change.”

MEDICA.de; Source: University of the West of England