Researchers at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education Centre for Longitudinal Studies examined data from more than 10,000 teenagers who are taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study – a study tracking the lives of thousands of youngsters born at the turn of the century – and revealed that “more than one in three British teenagers are overweight or obese”.
Cue educators, health foundation spokespeople and campaigners writing about what can be done. Professor Mary Fewtrell of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health suggested: “A range of measures must be considered including… statutory school-based health education in all schools.”
Health education in schools would certainly provide children with the knowledge to make informed decisions about their health. But let’s not forget how, as youngsters, we might have reacted to being told to eat five a day or avoid sugary drinks, or to being forced to go on a long walk in the summer holiday.
I remember feeling immortal, and I’m sure that many young people do today too. So while I don’t disagree with providing young people with health education, I am not convinced that doing so would resolve the issue of one in three teenagers being overweight or obese.
Nor do I think it would address concerns about young people at the opposite end of the fitness spectrum. When schools and governments consider how to instil in pupils positive habits for a long and healthy life, they must recognise that not only are one in three teens overweight but, of the other two in three, many will have different, but equally unhealthy, relationships with fitness and diet.
Many of today’s young people obsess about achieving levels of muscular definition that are worryingly unhealthy. Bombarded with images of well-defined six packs, tiny waists, taut and defined upper arms, and slender or muscular legs, they develop skewed ideas of what is ‘normal’ or achievable. They feel under such pressure to achieve so-called ‘perfection’ that sport and exercise are viewed merely as a means to achieving an extraordinary physique, rather than as an integral part of a healthy life – both physically and mentally.
But the links between sports and wellbeing are clear. Sport encourages people to spend more time outside, to have a go, to lose, to try again, to work in a team, to hone skills and, finally, to see the results of determination! Young people need to see these benefits if they are to move their thoughts away from gyms and diets, towards thinking instead about sport and exercise for developing strength and stamina and, essentially, for having fun!
For me this is the crux of the matter: sport should be fun. Games are called ‘games’ for good reason, and to ensure children recognise this, schools need effective organisation. The right people need to be involved at all levels, to schedule suitable fixtures and events, to carefully timetable and manage facilities, and to communicate with pupils and parents about expectations, pressures and positive attitudes.
Sensible coaching is paramount too. We have pupils from two to 18, so PE lessons understandably vary a great deal in terms of challenge and competition across the school. That doesn’t mean, however, that ‘sport for all’ – a term often used by schools to denote that they allow pupils to choose which sports to do during PE lessons – is the answer. If pupils avoid sports they find most challenging, they’ll also miss out on the positive aspects the sport entails, such as working in a team, or developing the dedication to improve.
Yet there’s no exact science. While some children will take to competitive sports and teamwork more quickly, others will be hesitant, and require more coaching and encouragement. So, if we want to encourage children to develop positive relationships with sport and exercise, schools need to have the very best staff. From heads of department and sports teachers to coaches and staff running clubs, those who can read each situation and identify the appropriate level of competition or encouragement for each group are going to be the ones who ensure children experience the right combination of challenge, and joy.
And only with the right balance will young people develop positive attitudes to sport and fitness that will serve them well, physically and mentally, for life.