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Musculoskeletal impact of childhood obesity

Publish date: 03/04/2014

Tags: Obesity


What’s the musculoskeletal impact of childhood obesity?

Childhood obesity is growing in the UK. Latest figures from Public Health England revealed nearly one in five children aged 10 to 11 in the UK are obese and a further 14.4 per cent are overweight.

Apart from obvious health problems such as type two diabetes, psychological problems, asthma and cardiovascular disease, obesity in childhood can also affect the musculoskeletal system, leading to impaired development of the skeleton and conditions such as abnormal development of the hip or bow legs.

Being overweight also puts more strain on the skeleton and is a risk factor for development of osteoarthritis which can lead to the need for joint replacements in later life.

Musculoskeletal conditions related to obesity

Musculoskeletal conditions that can be related to your child’s weight include:

Slipped capital femoral epiphysis:

Resulting from the impact of increased weight on the developing skeletal system, this condition occurs when the upper part of the thighbone “slips”.

It is common in overweight teenage boys, the main symptoms being hip pain and limping.

GP Dr Alasdair Wright says: ‘The mechanism is not fully understood, but an increase in body weight can cause the growth plate of the thighbone at the level of the hip to slip backwards. This will result in reduced movement of the hip and a limp. If left untreated, this can lead to shortening of the hipbone and arthritis earlier in adulthood.’

Knee pain:

A recent longitudinal study of parents and children found that obese 17 year olds were more likely to report musculoskeletal knee pain and pain that was more severe than their non-obese counterparts.

Difficulties with walking:

An Australian study recently published on Public Health England revealed that obese 10-13 year olds had impaired physical health-related quality of life and activity restrictions such as walking and climbing stairs.

Ankle and foot problems:

Another study published on Public Health England revealed that Dutch children aged 2-17 years who were overweight and obese also reported musculoskeletal problems. Ankle and foot problems were significantly more common in overweight and obese children compared with normal weight children.


‘The density of bones improves with exercise so people who are physically active are less likely to develop osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) earlier in later adult life,’ explains Dr Wright.

‘Childhood behavioural patterns often carry on into adulthood, so being overweight and less active as a child increases the chances of this continuing into adulthood. Although increased body weight does give some protection against bone thinning, exercise is essential too. Being underweight and inactive in adulthood will also increase the chance of earlier osteoporosis,’ he adds.

Why exercise is crucial for your child’s bones

 Obese children are less likely to take exercise, which can have a detrimental effect on their skeleton. Encouraging them to be more active so they lose weight is crucial.

Dr Wright explains: ‘Developing bones need stimulation through exercise for normal growth of the skeleton to occur. The shape, density and length of the bones will only reach their maximum potential if a level of exercise stimulation is provided.

‘Too little exercise may result in less robust bones but equally too much heavy exercise during the bone-developing years can cause problems too. A balance of moderate regular exercise is the key to provide the correct stimulation needed for full bone growth.’

Tips for getting your child to be more active

The best way is to lead by example, advises Dr Wright. ‘Try to be physically active as a parent and include your children in your activities. Make sure exercise is fun – exercise doesn't have to be purely physical – find out what your child likes. Include dance and music or adding a game element to the activity such as trying to beat 10 skips in a row.’

  •  Organise family-based activities: Try a family outing doing something active – a game of football or rounders in the park, a walk in the countryside, a bike ride or a trip to a swimming pool.
  •  Let them walk to school: Any activity is better than none, so walk them to school or if they are old enough allow them to walk alone or with a friend. Even getting public transport is better than being driven everywhere.
  •  Sign up for classes and clubs: Find out your child’s interests and encourage them to join an after-school club in team sports, martial arts, dance, swimming or even cheerleading.
  •  Ration their time in front of a screen: Drag them away from the TV, laptop or tablet and encourage them to play outdoors in the garden or outside on their bike.



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