Czech kids climb obesity rankings as activity levels slide

Photo: artur84 /

A recent comparative study by the World Health Organisation shows that some 80 percent of Czech schoolchildren do not get enough physical activity. As a result a growing number of them suffer from excessive weight and obesity. Czech children are also high on the list in alcohol consumption and smoking cigarettes and marihuana.

Photo: artur84 /
I spoke to Michal Kalman from Palacký University in Olomouc, who is in charge of the research carried out in the Czech Republic, about the reasons behind the negative trend, but I first asked him to tell me more about the study itself:

“The study was initiated in 1992 by four countries, the UK, Denmark, Norway and Austria and every four years, when the study is conducted, the number of countries involved in the study increased. So at the moment, 44 countries, including all the European countries, plus North America, Israel, Russia and other countries, are taking part.”

The study is called Health Behaviour in School-Aged children so how old are the children that are being surveyed?

“Our main target groups are 11, 13 and 15 year-old kids.”

What were the main indicators that you focused on?

“It was physical activity, sedentary behaviour, BMI, life satisfaction, risk behaviour, consumption of alcohol and substance use, communication with parents and peers and school environment.”

It is apparent from the results of your study that Czech children do not fare very well in comparison to their peers from other countries. What were the most surprising results this year?

“Children in our study generally come out as very happy; their life satisfaction is very high. However, children in the Czech Republic don't seem to be that happy when compared to other countries. Why it is like that we still don't know. But when we look at other issues, such as risk behaviour, Czech kids try cigarettes and alcohol at a very early age so in terms of alcohol consumption or tobacco use, they are definitely leading.”

One of the most alarming results is the growing number of children who are either overweight or obese. Although the Czech Republic is still at an EU average the number of these kids keeps growing.

Michal Kalman,  photo: Prokop Havel
“You are right. The Czech kids are more or less average but every year the situation is getting worse, especially among boys. Young boys suffer from excessive weight and obesity twice as much as girls, despite being more physically active.

“But it is not only about physical activity. It is also about nutrition and healthy life style. Czech kids don't eat enough fruits and vegetables and what is even more alarming, they don't eat breakfast regularly.

“Almost 60 percent of Czechs kids are not having breakfast, so on the way to school, they are buying whatever you can imagine, maybe some soft drinks or chips, but it is definitely not fruits or vegetables.

“And also in the evenings, most Czech kids are not having supper with their parents. Only some ten percent of them are having dinners with their family.”

Why has this happened? Would you say people are generally more stressed out and overworked and they don't have time for their family?

“I think the problem is more complex. We don't need physical labour to fulfil our daily tasks. Since the Industrial Revolution, in the last 100 years, our lifestyle has changed rapidly and we don't need to move at all.

“Another important thing is the explosion of social media in the last ten or fifteen. So it is not just about the kids, but also about the parents and schools. For the last sixty or seventy years, we have been building cities that are friendly for cars but they are friendly for pedestrians or cyclists.

“So it is really more complex and one the main outcomes of the HBSC international report published last year by the WHO, the biggest problem is the low level of physical activity and a really high number of overweight and obese kids.”

According to the results of your study, the Czech Republic was the only country where the amount of physical activity among children keeps going down. Is that right?

“Well, the study has been running for 30 years so we can look back and it is true that when we compare the trend files for the last ten years, the average physical activity level has been slightly increasing while in the Czech Republic it has been going down.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“At the same time I have to say that 10 or 15 years ago the level of physical activity in the Czech Republic was pretty high, we were among the top countries. But now we are on the average and the levels are still going down.”

Do you have any idea why that might be?

“I think that the Czech kids are getting more average. So all kids are falling to the bottom and only 10 percent fulfil the international physical activity recommendation, which is 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

“If we look at 11-year-old kids, about 28 percent of them are active, which is still very low, but with the age, the number is decreasing. So among the kids at the age of 15, only some ten percent of are active.”

At the same time, Czech kids have much more experience with smoking and with the consumption of alcohol and marihuana. Why is that?

“It is because it is accessible, you can buy alcohol anywhere. And the same goes for cigarettes. It is cheap and accessible.”

Is it also about the Czech society being more permissive in this respect?

“That might is also true. One of the positive results of the most recent survey internationally the consumption of alcohol and tobacco has really been decreasing. And it has also been decreasing in the Czech Republic, but we are still open of the leading countries in this respect.”

What is the most important factor that affects the lifestyle of kids? Is it the family or the school? And would you say schools are doing enough to oversee that kids stick to healthy habits?

“Of course when kids are younger, parents have the most influence, but as they grow older, school becomes is the most influential factor. But we also have to involve the local community and paediatricians, in these issues. So there are still a lot of things to change in the Czech Republic.

“We have lots of good examples to follow. We are looking at countries with well-developed strategies for healthy living, such as Canada, Norway, Australia or New Zealand, and we are trying to introduce them in the Czech Republic. At the same time we have a specific culture and history and not everything that works abroad applies in the Czech Republic.”

Are you actually suggesting what steps might be taken to improve the situation?

Photo: Raven3k / freeimages
“Our main aim is to provide the evidence-based data to develop national strategies and to promote healthy living among kids, not just on the national but also on the international level. We also prepare analyses on the regional level.

Who are you cooperating with?

“We try to cooperate mainly with the Health Ministry and I must say that they are very open and they do use our data to set up the national priorities. We also cooperate increasingly with the Ministry of Education. So I would say that on the national level we quite well set up and now we are trying to hold more intensive talks with the regional and local authorities.”