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The need to encourage exercise

Every study which has been performed confirms that the level of exercise taking in the population is lamentably low. The only question is just how low. When exercise performance is estimated from questionnaires the level does not look too bad. In the 2012 HSE report, 34 percent of men and 24 percent of women aged 16 and over met the government guidelines. (Later in life, the taking of exercise falls off badly – by the age of 75 the level is 8% for men and 3% for women). When exercise level is actually measured the figures are startlingly different. The 2008 HSE report which did make these measurements found that just 6 percent of men and 4 percent of women achieved the government’s recommended physical activity level – only one-sixth of the level of compliance indicated by individuals’ own questionnaire response. Either way, we certainly need to put a great deal more money and effort into promoting exercise to a reluctant general public.

Where to start

Childhood has to be the place. The business of developing a national culture of exercise must begin then. The prime movers have to be those concerned with education and the provision of school playgrounds and other exercise facilities. Those who supervise children’s sports and games are central.

The current recommendation for children aged six to seventeen is that they should perform 60 minutes daily of moderate-to-vigorous activity. Sadly this target is met by less than 50% of younger children. After that everything goes downhill – the figure for adolescents is about 20%.

In school
Evidence suggests that the reduction in physical activity in adolescence predominantly occurs outside of school. School settings offer a way of reaching large numbers of young people from a broad range of backgrounds and is where initiatives should start.

So far so bad – there has been little success in attempts to increase exercise taking in schools.

Plenty of active playing space should be a help. However, the figures on school playgrounds are shocking. Since the London Olympics in 2012, the equivalent of one playing field per fortnight has been sold off and the rate of sales has recently risen. In 2016, 21 schools sold their playing fields to developers, the highest number since 2013. Permission to sell was often denied by local authorities who were then overruled by the Department of Education.

A number of initiatives have been tried to make use of the school environment to increase physical activity in childhood. One such has been the GoActive programme. GoActive aimed to increase physical activity through increased peer support, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and friendship quality and was implemented in tutor groups using a student-led tiered-leadership system. Mentorship and peer-leadership addressed time pressures and between-class competition was incorporated as a strategy to encourage teacher enthusiasm. It sounds a cert. A controlled trial of implementation of GoActive in all state-run secondary schools in Cambridgeshire and Essex was performed in 2016. The main finding was that GoActive programme made not a blind bit of difference to the physical activity of the children who took part.

One recent initiative has been the “Daily Mile”. Participating primary schools and there are at the time of writing more than 3,500 in the UK with many more in other countries, get their charges to run for 15 minutes each morning before the start of lessons. Another initiative that sounds bound to work. Again, however, when put to the test the results are deeply disappointing. For boys, no increase in activity has been shown and for girls only minor increases.

At home
The most important people in promoting children’s exercise, however, must be the parents – maybe you, dear reader. One approach is the possibility of allowing community groups to use school playing fields (where these have been retained) to be used in the summer holidays.

To help overcome this lamentable trait, the country is amazingly well endowed with altruistic adults, mostly parents, who supervise children’s sporting activities – football, rugby, tennis, athletics – bravo to all of them. School teachers, even if lacking their sports grounds, can play a big part in encouraging children to exercise outside school hours – it it were allowed. now the pandemic has intervened.

Covid – again
The pandemic has been a disaster for the fitness levels of school children. Schools play a vital role in keeping young people as active as they are. New figures from Sport England show the great majority of young people failed to meet the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise in the 2019/20 academic year. Almost a third of children (2.3 million) were classed as ‘inactive’ as a result of lockdown restrictions, not even doing 30 minutes per day,

Next week it is time to look at initiatives for adults.