Telling children to “sit still” sets them up for a lifetime of obesity, a report by MPs and peers has warned.
Parents and teachers should “treasure the young child’s natural inclination to be physically active” instead of telling them to stop fidgeting or to be seated for long periods, the parliamentary group said.
Fitness experts said today's children were being fed a diet of "sofa and screen time" while being starved of outdoor activities.
The report by the all-party parliamentary group on a fit and healthy childhood said most children today spend less time playing outdoors than prisoners are required to have outside by law.
The group called on the Government to rewrite the childhood obesity strategy, to make promotion of exercise a more substantial part of it.
And it called for “traffic light” food labelling to be replaced with “activity equivalent” calorie labels - showing how much walking it would take to burn off the calories.
Baroness Floella Benjamin, co-chair of the group, said: “The UK is in the throes of an obesity epidemic – but at the moment, our Government is not rising to the occasion with all the weapons at its disposal.”
The report highlights research which found three quarters of British parents said their children spend an hour or less playing outside each day - the minimum amount of outdoor time given to prison inmates.
“Young children’s physical activity should be seen as the norm; something to be positively encouraged every day.
“Linked to this, identification of a ‘good’ child as one who sits still - as opposed to a happily mobile child, need to be resisted and challenged,” the report states, calling for a “significant shift” in attitudes towards young children.
The report says young children should be given exercise breaks, during school days, and during classes, and endorses the “Daily Mile” programme introduced in Scotland.
Under the initiative, schools and nurseries are encouraged to ensure children walk or run a mile during the day, before or during school.
It also calls for television programming to introduce “exercise cues” which encourge children to do activity.
But the report says attitudes need to be changed, suggesting parents should not encourage their children to sit still, or try to restrain them from running about.
Identification of a ‘good’ child as one who sits still - as opposed to a happily mobile child - need to be resisted
APPG on a fit and healthy childhood
“Planned physical activity programmes are valuable, but a cultural shift would treasure the young child’s natural inclination to be physically active,” the report states.
One in ten children are obese by the time they start primary school, rising to one in five by the time they finish, NHS data shows.
Lead author Helen Clark said Government initiatives to tackle obesity - such as a sugar tax on drinks, coming in next year, were welcome, but said too little was being done to address inactive lifestyles.
“We need a national campaign to stop the rot,” she said, calling for widespread action in England along the lines of the Daily Mile scheme pioneered in Scotland.
Jack Shakespeare, Head of ukactive Kids, said: “Children are born to move, but today’s youngsters are instead fed a staple diet of sofa play and screen time, while being starved of outdoor activities.
“For too long we’ve been telling children to sit still and stay quiet, but we need to rip up the rulebook and encourage children to be up and active at every opportunity if we are to reverse the alarming decline in physical activity levels.
“This means shaking up the school day to include active commuting, standing lessons that bring movement into the classroom and simple things like ditching the ‘no ball games’ signs and telling the kids that they should be running in the corridors.”