Study: One in five 11-15 year-olds in Estonia are overweight

A school sports day (photo is illustrative).
A school sports day (photo is illustrative). Source: Kohtla-Järve High School

A survey conducted by the Estonian National Institute for Health Development (TAI) reveals that the number of overweight or obese children in Estonia has risen significantly in the past four years, in turn threatening to bring a concomitant rise in the number of adults suffering health problems in future.

A total of one in five 11-15 year-olds are overweight, the survey found.

The data shows that more and more schoolchildren are struggling with being overweight, or even with obesity.

The number of young people with an excess body mass has grown faster among boys. 15 per cent of girls are overweight or obese, compared with a quarter of boys, between the ages of 11 and 15.

The number of minors with excessive body weight rises with age. In part, this is connected with less and less exercise, as they get older.

Merike Kull, head of the Liiklumislabor at the University of Tartu and an associate professor of health education, said that for young children, movement comes very naturally to them, usually up to the fifth grade, i.e. up to the age of 11 or 12.

"If there are exercise opportunities available to children of this age, such as outdoor recess in schools, then games will take place and the children will get to run around," Professor Kull said.

Thereafter, however, children tend to develop different interests, and exercise can thus become less important, to many of them. There is also a difference relating to whether a child lives in the countryside or in the city.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, if anything the data reveals that children in the towns get more exercise than those in rural areas, according to Kull.

There are more options for sports, training and hobby groups in the town, than for rural kids, who may also have a long bus or other journey into school, Kull noted.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says children and young people should get some form of exercise for at least 60 minutes daily at a moderate to high intensity; for adults, that figure is 150 minutes a week.

University of Tartu researchers have used motion sensors to ascertain how much exercise children in Estonia get, finding that less than half, or about 43 per cent, meet the above recommended norm (for adults, the figure is around half).

Jarek Mäestu, professor of movement and sports biology at the University of Tartu, said that this can also be habit-forming – a child who doesn't get enough exercise will likely follow the same trend as an adult, which in turn will hike the risk of obesity.

Many adults also spend too much time in the day sitting, while a more general trend in the "welfare society" is that lives are becoming more comfortable, he said. "The human organism is very adaptable, in both good and bad ways. It adapts to the fact that if it is possible to get along in an energy-efficient way, we tend to allow ourselves to do so."

Merike Kull added that the data shows a trend for a decline in exercise over time, even as participation in training has not decreased among children and young people per se.

The use of cars and parents ready to drive their offspring round is one factor.

"If we think the other way around, we could offer more active movement and think about how even a part of the school journey could be made more active for the child," Kull said.

Studies both in Estonia and abroad show that boys move more than girls, she added, with girls liking, for instance, walking, more, whereas boys will tend to prefer ball games.

Data from Statistics Estonia from the period 2019-2021 found no major issues with Estonian children's exercise habits, however.

Merike Kull said the difference derives from the studies' methodology, mainly given that this simply recorded the amount of time the children reported exercising, whereas sensors reveal that actual exercise activity accounts for around 30 percent of the time, or 23 minutes in an hour – the remainder can be taken up with other activity such as explaining Techniques.

So simply attending training on its own is not sufficient.

There are also big differences between weekdays, during term time, and the weekends or holidays, with children being much less active at the weekend.

Jarek Mäestu said that Europe-wide, Estonian children were about in the middle. "Maybe we're doing better than southern Europe, but certainly worse than northern Europe," he said.

One project attempts to introduce exercise and movement is being brought in as a natural part of the school day into children's days, starting off with how they come to school in the first place.

According to Merike Kull, it can be observed, for instance, that if there are more bicycle parking lots near the school, then children will tend to come to school by bike more.

Outdoor recess also plays an important role and should be more common, as it is in the Nordic countries, she said.

The time could even be extended to as long as an hour.

This also solves the issue for the many children who do not have siblings of their own age, particularly in the winter months.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: Raadio 2 "Piltlikult öeldes," reporter Sandra Saar

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