ALMOST 70,000 Oxfordshire children could be failing to get enough exercise amid growing fears of a 'ticking time bomb' of inactivity.

An estimated 81 per cent of school-age youngsters in the county have not achieved 60 minutes of daily physical activity since the start of lockdown, meaning 68,000 are missing out.

The alarming statistic is accompanied by concerns over child obesity, which is significantly higher than the county Year 6 average in 11 Oxfordshire wards.

To combat the problem, charity Active Oxfordshire has launched its Active 60 campaign, which aims to ensure every child achieves a full hour each day.

Chief executive Paul Brivio said: “Children’s inactivity levels are a ticking time bomb that we simply cannot ignore.

"We owe it to Oxfordshire’s children to work together and give every child an active start in life.

"Covid-19 has not only meant that activity levels for children have dropped to an all time low, it’s also widened the inequality gap."

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Even before lockdown, just 52 per cent of Oxfordshire children were achieving the chief medical officer's recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise.

While this was up on the national average of 47 per cent, Sport England found the UK figure had fallen to just 19 per cent since March.

Excess weight levels are also a major concern, with one in five reception pupils and almost one third in Year 6 overweight or obese, according to Oxfordshire's 2020 Joint Strategic Needs Assessment.

The figures are higher in more deprived areas, with childhood obesity significantly higher in Blackbird Leys and Northfield Brook than the rest of the county.

Blackbird Leys councillor Linda Smith, who is also the city council's cabinet member for leisure and parks, feels an absence of facilities has been a big blow.

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She said: "The figures go hand-in-hand with poverty statistics.

"It was so short-sighted of Oxfordshire County Council to close children's centres, as they do great work getting kids active, providing low-cost lunches, cooking classes and more.

"We've got the fantastic Leys Leisure Centre, which we're hoping to reopen next month.

"The sooner we can get back to offering that, the better.

"Our councils need to work together with our brilliant community organisations."

The Leys previously offered free swimming lessons to ages 17 and under to increase opportunities for children from more deprived areas.

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Active Oxfordshire found 84 per cent of children in north Oxford can swim by age 11, compared to just 30 per cent in parts of East Oxford.

Lawrie Stratford, the county council's board member for adult social care and public health, knows a lack of structured exercise had an impact on many children.

He said: "Part of the challenge for young people is the opportunity to be active in an organised way.

"Many homes might not have the facilities and some of our inner-city schools don't have that sort of space."

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The Bicester North councillor hopes the rise in walking and cycling during lockdown will continue, but admitted more needs to be done.

He said: "We're working hard to try to provide for them, (but) I can understand there was a frustration about children's services.

"We still have a challenge in some areas. In many cases these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg."

Mr Stratford added: "I don't like the phrase 'ticking time bomb', because a time bomb goes off and then it's over.

"There's no simple solution, but it's about getting people to go out and do a little bit more exercise.

"If adults can encourage their children then we're on to a winner."

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The Active 60 campaign urges schools to sign up to the WOW Walk to School scheme, which promotes healthy ways to get from home to the classroom.

Among other measures, a virtual Healthy Active Children conference will take place in November.

Active Oxfordshire is promoting affordable schemes such as Cherwell District Council’s FAST programme, which saw children's activity levels rise by 30 per cent from July 2018 to March 2020.

One of the schools working with the charity is Windmill Primary School in Headington.

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Headteacher Lynn Knapp said: “In this day and age, where our lives are dominated by screens, and where we’re seeing more and more children becoming anxious and suffering with mental health issues, we must place a greater emphasis on the children in our schools becoming physically active.

"If they can become active for an hour a day, and this becomes part of their routine, we are supporting them in setting themselves up for a future which is healthier and happier than currently many of our children have.”