I wish there was a way I could step back in time and beg my younger self to take better care of my body – and engage in more physical activity. This is something I have often felt. 

And earlier this week I heard the same sentiment being expressed by a friend who has recently put healthy eating and regular exercise at the top of his agenda. In my adult life, I have spent much energy lamenting not having taken part in school sports, or being angry at my parents for not putting more pressure on me to get involved in sporting activity. 

But this lamenting and courting regret are exercises in futility. We cannot change the past. But we can take steps to improve our futures – and those of our children. 

Not too long ago, I made reference in this column to the 2016 Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card and the red flags it raised with regard to activity and eating patterns among our youngsters. When the 2018 Report Card was released earlier this week, my heart sank as I studied it. 

Not only had most of the scores remained at the same low levels, but some had actually dipped. Once again, we scored an F for our efforts to get kids away from screens, with research showing that children may actually be spending more time than before engaged in screen time because cellphones are becoming more accessible. 

Efforts to tackle the intake of fast food, sugar-sweetened beverages, snacks and foods high in salt also scored an F. Key take-outs for me were the focus on the importance of creating safe spaces for children to get active, encouraging walking and cycling to school; the significance of family and peer support; and school nutrition culture and the environment. With regard to the first, I think of the children in gang ravaged areas we report on in our newspapers week after week. 

Their playgrounds become war zones, and when they’re supposed to be playing and having fun, they’re learning to duck as the bullets fly. When it comes to creating safe places for activity, I believe these kids should be at the top of our priority list. 

The provincial government’s introduction of “walking buses” in vulnerable communities not only encourages children to walk to school, but also engages the community in keeping their children safe. Family and peer support, according to the report, is an area which has “real potential for change through community-based physical activity”. 
Next time we score an F on Healthy Report Card, it should be for fitness
Here I’d like to add “and healthy eating”. Children learn from what we do, not what we say, so let’s be good examples for children when we’re moving and eating. It is our responsibility to teach them about balance and healthy eating habits. 

And then there’s the school tuck shop. Considering that research shows that half of all schoolchildren in South Africa buy food at school, it’s concerning that most tuck shops were found to stock food which is high in calories and has low nutritional value. 

But probably the most sobering section of this report pertains to the impact of media and advertising on children’s eating habits, with researchers predicting that the increasing popularity of digital advertising, particularly via social media, will give food manufacturers direct access to young and impressionable audiences. 

This gave me, as the invited media representative in a panel discussion at the report launch, much to think about in terms of the role the media can play in promoting healthy eating and activity among South African children, and to highlight the dual challenges posed by poverty and food insecurity; and overweight and obesity. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be delving a bit deeper into the research findings. For more, check out www. editedeating.co.za or follow @editedeating on social media.