55,000 schoolchildren competing in a challenge aimed to boost child health habits.

John "Doc" Mayhew, Warriors doctor, chief medical officer of Sovereign Insurance and former doctor for the All Blacks, says few people understand the depth of New Zealand's child health problem.

Mayhew says our patchy child health record is part of the motivation for AIA and Sovereign's New Zealand's Healthiest Schools Challenge which started last week.

The challenge sees 55,000 primary and intermediate schoolchildren (and 2000 teachers) armed with pedometers to count steps and other activities in an effort to get Kiwi kids moving more and becoming less anchored in a sedentary lifestyle. Walking, cycling and swimming will all play a role as will activities designed to address issues like too much screen time and healthy sleep patterns – while two international development coaches (who work as AIA ambassadors for English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur) will hold exercise, nutrition and football clinics.

According to OECD figures, New Zealand children are number three on the list of the most obese children in the world, with a third of children and teenagers here either overweight or obese.

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Just last year, Unicef's latest report card on global child health also saw New Zealand rank low in a "league table" of 41 developed nations – 34th across nine child-relevant goals, including 38th for "good health and wellbeing".

Mayhew says poor nutrition plays a big part in such statistics but so does a lack of exercise – which is why the AIA and Sovereign challenge is encouraging young people to get moving by combining online adventure with physical activity, using well-known ambassadors like former All Black Cory Jane and former New Zealand Black Stick, Gemma McCaw, whose avatars will travel with the children on a digital tour of some of the world's greatest sights.

"We are becoming an obese and inactive nation," Mayhew says. "I work in the insurance industry and we are now seeing diabetes in children and health complications in people in their 20s.

"We know non-communicable disease accounts for almost 90 per cent of all deaths here. We also know that instilling healthy habits in children before 10 means those kids are much more likely to make a habit of healthy living throughout their lives."

So the Healthiest Schools Challenge was a "first step towards getting kids outside and away from their TVs, phones and computers", says Mayhew, acknowledging that overweight children is a global problem and that no country has managed to reverse the trend of rising obesity levels.

Research by medical journal Lancet published last year showed the global number of obese children and adolescents was 10 times higher in 2016 than in 1975 (124m compared to 11m).

However, some countries addressing the link between overweight kids turning into obese adults may be showing the way forward.

Finland has focused on child health and schools in recent years, since it realised it had one of the highest rate of deaths from heart-related issues in the world. A BBC report in 2016 noted that the Finnish government advised that children under eight should spend at least three hours a day in physical activities, with parents strongly advised to encourage their children to pursue hobbies and interests involving physical exertion. They backed that up with a holistic approach, including a sugar tax to reduce consumption of sweet foods and a multi-government-agency national obesity programme aimed at children and schools.

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The World Health Organisation also recorded the results of a Finnish social experiment which saw the number of obese children in one Finnish city fall from 20 per cent in 2009 to half that in 2015.

City departments cooperated over time to improve school playgrounds, to implement more physical activity in schools, free lunches in schools (available since 1948) were revised to eliminate sugary snacks and comprehensive yearly health examinations were held in schools, including parent education on healthy eating.

Finland became known for some of the most physically fit children in Europe – and for some of the highest academic results among schoolchildren in the developed world. Minister for Education and Culture, Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, told the BBC that was no coincidence, as physical activity contributed to a child's happiness and promoted learning and social interaction.

Here's how the New Zealand Healthiest Schools Challenge, which runs from October 16 to November 23, works:

• 55,000 kids and teachers from 500 schools will take part in a wide-ranging challenge, supported by AIA and Sovereign, to boost health and wellness through physical activity, nutrition and healthy sleep patterns, from today until November 23.
• Classes will be able to monitor their progress in the real world while, online, those same steps will move their avatars round virtual destinations with McCaw's and Jane's.
• Participating schools have a chance to win a share of $50,000 worth of AIA and Sovereign sports grants.

For more information: www.nzhealthiestschools.blog