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Childhood Obesity: Yoga

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 21 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have made an assessment of the benefits of yoga for obese schoolchildren.

My Lords, while there is some evidence that regular yoga is beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains, depression and stress, no central assessment has been made of its benefits for obese schoolchildren.

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s observation. Is he aware that the largest NGO in India, the Kripa Foundation, uses yoga as a means of attracting young drug addicts, drunks and people with HIV into recovery? Given the success there and the problems we have with our current obesity plan, which fails to get into the heads of young people—we have great difficulty in making connections so that they can become more self-aware about the need to take responsibility for their own health—might we explore methods such as yoga with them? It might be a means whereby they could take a closer look at themselves, their problems and the opportunities they have to make a better life in the future.

I am not aware of the charity that the noble Lord mentioned, although after university I spent six months in India as a teacher. The school I taught in practised yoga with its children and it seemed to have a calming effect on them—which is just as well, because I am not sure my teaching skills had such an effect. I am sure many noble Lords know personally the benefits of yoga. It has not been proven to have any impact on obesity, although it has many other benefits, as the noble Lord pointed out. It is something that schools can and do use as part of their repertoire in the PE curriculum to provide exercise for children, although it does not count towards the moderate and higher levels of activity demanded by the PE curriculum.

Does the Minister agree that exercise does not deal with the obesity problem at all? There is only one way of dealing with obesity: eating less. Does he also agree that pregnant women who are obese transfer that tendency of obesity to their offspring by a mechanism, which we do not understand, called epigenetics? While we are on the subject, I congratulate the Minister on being a shining example of controlling his measurements. I have noticed that his waist measurement is less than half his height.

I am wondering how my noble friend has made such an accurate assessment. He did not see my weight on the scales this morning. He is quite right. Of course, it is a combination of exercise and healthy eating, which is why there has been a push for both those things in our schools. There are great risks to pregnant women from being obese, not only to themselves with diabetes in pregnancy, which tends to reappear in later life, but in the impact on their children. That is why it is so important that pregnant women get good advice about healthy eating.

My Lords, today is International Yoga Day, on which we are about to launch the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Yoga in Society. As with mindfulness, we will be offering staff here on the Estate, MPs and Peers courses in seated yoga and breathing techniques, which have other benefits besides tackling obesity. I ask the Minister and other noble Lords to sign up to such courses.

My Lords, as the Minister said, there really should be an evidence base before we pursue this too far. Does the department know whether there are sufficient teachers trained to teach children in yoga? Would there need to be appropriate safeguarding?

I am afraid I do not know whether we know that. I suspect we do not. Yoga is an incredibly popular pastime for children and adults. Indeed, I think there are mother-and-baby yoga classes, which are also popular. I am sure safeguarding concerns will always be foremost when dealing with young children.

Will my noble friend join me in wishing the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, a very happy birthday?

My Lords, widening the conversation, when the NHS settlement is detailed in full, will the well-being of schoolchildren be looked at very carefully, particularly in relation to school nurses and the support that a lot of young people, particularly teenagers, need in schools and possibly are not getting sufficiently at the moment?

The noble Baroness is quite right to raise that issue. Of course, it is something we are looking at. I also point to the pledge made in the children and young people’s mental health Green Paper to dramatically increase the number of staff on mental health support teams, which are providing not just help for children who are in crisis or having difficulties but well-being skills so that they do not experience those problems in the first place.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that I am an enthusiastic advocate of the Daily Mile for schoolchildren. With the terrifying rise in obesity among schoolchildren, I hope it will be included in the updated childhood obesity plan. Can the Minister give us any idea when that plan might be coming?

I am glad that my noble friend has highlighted that. I can confirm that the next chapter of the plan will be coming very shortly. We will be discussing some proposals on the Daily Mile in that plan.

My Lords, while yoga is undoubtedly important—although I know nothing about it—surely there is one simple point about childhood obesity: excessive sugar consumption, in drinks or elsewhere. We have to tackle that much more positively. I hope that the Government’s new plan will do that.

The noble Lord is quite right: it is not just sugar that is eaten but sugar that is drunk as well. The sugar levy has been a significant success. Half the drinks it applied to have been reformulated to reduce their sugar, saving 45 million kilograms of sugar being consumed each year. We have more to do on sugar reduction beyond fizzy drinks. We did not hit our target in the first year but we will take further action to make sure that we do so.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of recent research by the Institute of Education of University College London that shows that communal singing in primary and secondary schools has a strong calming effect and improves concentration, discipline and everything else, yet many schools are losing their music teachers, leaving no one in the school with any music qualification? I declare an interest as a trustee of the VCM Foundation.

I understand that the noble Lord is a member of the parliamentary choir, so he is a living example of the benefits of communal singing, or maybe not. I am sure he is very tuneful. The noble Lord is quite right: singing and, indeed, all arts are good for the soul and should be part of the school day.