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London Borough of Southwark's promotion of a more active lifestyle to tackle childhood obesity

Increasing physical activity among children and young people is a central goal of Southwark Council’s holistic approach to tackling child obesity. From planning development, designing transport to commissioning leisure services with specific health outputs, the promotion of more active lifestyles is a strategic aim.

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The challenge

Southwark has the highest levels of child obesity in the country with 43 per cent of Year 6 pupils considered overweight or obese. Those living in socially deprived areas and belonging to certain ethnic groups are at a higher risk of becoming overweight.

The council’s most recent Healthy Weight Strategy document, entitled “Everybody’s Business”, concludes that everything the council does “must be geared up to help prevent and reduce obesity in our local communities”.

The approach

A key element of the Whole Systems Approach at Southwark is the role that physical activity plays in promoting health and wellbeing. Attention is increasingly being paid to creating better opportunities for residents to lead more active lives. This also helps to combat isolation and loneliness and support positive mental health.

A recent innovation, the Movement Plan, departs from the usual transport plan by clearly signalling a public health-led approach to how people travel around the borough. Increasing obesity levels are pinpointed as a prime motivator for creating streets that are nicer to walk and cycle and are more accessible.

Active travel is a priority for regeneration work. Major redevelopments at Elephant and Castle and the Old Kent Road include plans to create green spaces and environments that are more inviting for residents to be physically active.   At the Old Kent Road, for instance, designs have been submitted for three new parks and a “linear park” along the route of the Surrey Canal, which will connect existing and new neighbourhoods.

Another initiative aimed at boosting activity levels is Free Swim and Gym (FSG). Any resident who registers can enjoy free sessions all day Friday and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the borough’s leisure centres, operate by SLM under the name of Everyone Active (EA).

The offer, which has been running since 2016, has been hugely popular and is bringing in children, young people and adults who might not have used leisure facilities before.

“The scheme is an important element in the jigsaw of tools that we can use and it can also help to supplement services like Alive N Kicking, our weight management programme for children, young people and their families,” said Tara Quinn, Head of Parks and Leisure.

Aligned to FSG is a new offering of free swimming lessons. A pilot, aimed at older people and those with disabilities, has been very successful and the scheme has now been rolled out and is on offer to all adult residents.

Other initiatives aimed at increasing activity levels include Healthy Movers, a physical activity programme for under 5s, developed by the Youth Sports Trust.

The impact

The measures are having an impact. Data from 2007/08 and 2018/19 shows that rates of excess weight and obesity have fallen both at Reception and Year 6 over the last decade.

The FSG scheme has 32,750 registered members, 10.4 per cent of the population of Southwark. Some 52 percent of members are BME. In 2018, there were 121,901 visits to leisure centres under the scheme, rising to 137,230 in 2019.

The first free swimming lesson courses have also proved popular. Most of the 364 places available in leisure centre pools were filled.  Cumulative average attendance across the 12 weeks was; 67 per cent for adults under 60 years, 66 per cent for adults over 60 years and 59 per cent for adults with a disability.

Staff at 20 early years settings were trained in 2019 to increase the quantity and quality of physical activity delivery through their daily/weekly timetables via the Healthy movers programme.

Lessons learned

An early recognition of the importance of cross-council collaboration and delivery and the contribution other departments can make has avoided the tendency to work in silos. 

Social regeneration charters and development charters ensure close working with developers and extensive consultations to involve local residents.

Running pilots allows lessons to be learnt quickly and adaptations to be put in place before schemes are rolled-out.

How will the approach be sustained?

The need to address child obesity and improve physical activity is a stated aim of a number of strategic plans.

Southwark leisure management contacts, along with those in many other council areas, are increasingly focusing on health outputs and the delivery of health-related programmes.

Cllr Evelyn Akoto, Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Public Health, said: “Tackling childhood obesity and making sure our children get the best start in life is one of the council’s key commitments. There is no simple single solution. Our approach is multi-faceted, from making the physical environment that children live and play in healthier, to offering many opportunities to eat healthily and be more active.”


Tara Quinn, Head of Parks and Leisure

[email protected]