The re-opening of gyms and leisure centres across the UK earlier this month was a long awaited moment for many. Regarded as something to celebrate, a reclamation of sport and all that is does for us.

But whilst many have made the return to treadmills, pools and pitches there are likely to be households with a child or young person with disabilities who hasn’t ‘gone back’ to sport or other activities.

Whilst there are unquestionably many people with disabilities who enjoy sport, and even go onto make it a lifetime achievement to represent their county in national and global competitions, there are many who don’t have regular physical activity in a day to day sense. The reasons why are broad, relate to the individual and are inter mixed with wider economic, societal and structural reasons.

The 2012 London Olympics made huge gains for the profile of the Paralympics. It was one of the most watched sporting TV moments in history. But there is another side to health, disability and sport that isn’t often discussed or rarely reported on and that’s the topic of obesity amongst children with disabilities. The topic is rarely present in mainstream public debates or media reporting around NHS funding, health, body image and self-confidence.

It’s hard to find much in the way of statistics or published reports when researching obesity and disability in young people. We have managed to find a report from Public Health England, (published 2014), titled ‘Obesity and Disability Children and Young People’. They draw the conclusion that ‘children and young people are more likely to be obese than children without disabilities, with the risk increasing with age.’

Lower levels of participation in physical activity are attributed to a complexity of reasons. The key barriers listed cover lack of transport, parental behaviour, the child’s preferences, societal attitudes towards disability and even the parental attitudes towards the child. The report also considers income inequalities, sadly linked to obesity. Families supporting a child with disabilities are less likely to be able to work full time, due to care needs, which means lower incomes and the knock on effect being on diet, sport and overall physical and mental well-being.

From early on, if a child or young person faces greater socioeconomic inequalities, health inequalities will be present too, making obesity a greater risk. The Disabled Children’s Partnership (of which Cherry Trees is a member) reported February 2021 that 73% of parents didn’t think their child was getting enough exercise during the 3rd national lockdown whilst the drop in activity levels was having an adverse effect on their child.

Aware of this Cherry Trees has introduced garden games and activities in the recent Easter break encouraging time outdoors to reintroduce sport in a fun and informal way. From egg and spoon races, to seated basketball hoops, floor based balance beams and throwing activities, an ‘assault course’ was set up with the basis that there was something for everyone to try, irrespective of disability. The children were curious about the colourful layout, excited and took part with great readiness. The prizes? Fruit smoothies, crafted into frozen lollies thanks to our onsite specialist Chef. With National Wellness Week on the horizon for May we will be running more garden games to keep sport and being active on the agenda. Sadly many people with disabilities classified as obese face social stigma and are likely to be bullied – it’s not something we want our young people to have to encounter in their lives. By making games fun, giving everyone a chance to take part in a judgement free space, at our homely and caring house at Cherry Trees, we might kick start one small change that could bring greater rewards in time. 

Image credit: Photo by J AHMED SAIT on Unsplash