With every passing week, we’re reminded that Britain is in the throes of an obesity crisis. And just as frequently, we’re offered a prescription for a cure. A sugar tax, banning takeaway deliveries to schools, vending machines only stocked with healthy snacks, free school meals for infants, and school breakfast clubs are just a few of the initiatives proposed in the hopes of instilling healthier eating habits in our youngest generation.

It’s been over 10 years since Jamie Oliver launched his drive for healthier school meals. Although this positioned children’s health and nutrition firmly in the public gaze, it can’t be judged as the success he’d hoped it would be. In reality, its effects were always going to be limited unless change was more pervasive.

Data from Public Health England suggest this hasn’t happened. The latest figures for childhood obesity from 2014–2015, although slightly improved on the figures for 2012–2013, show that 19.1% of children in Year 6 were obese, with a further 14.2% classified as overweight. Meanwhile, 9.1% of children in Reception were obese, with a further 12.8% overweight.

On their own, these statistics are shocking enough. Add to them the results of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Essex, and the picture is stark indeed. They tested 300 children between the ages of 10 and 12 and found that the least fit child in a class of 30 in 1998 would now feature amongst the fittest five children in a comparable class today.

There is no doubt that these children have been let down badly. The article mentioned above details the failure to capitalise on the legacy from the 2012 Olympics, a situation which is, frankly, scandalous, given the amount of money ‘invested’ in the games with the declared aim of boosting sporting prospects for the young. PE, though a statutory curriculum subject, is now so squeezed that opportunities for children to be active within the bounds of class teaching time are now severely limited and participation levels in sport have shown no marked increase since 2012.

If there is to be any hope of turning the situation around, schools have to be part of a concerted, two-pronged attack. They must provide children with the knowledge to make healthy choices about their diets and lifestyles, and also provide the practical skills to ensure that they reap as much enjoyment as possible from being physically active it becomes a lifelong habit.  If curriculum time for PE is short, teachers must find other ways to ensure that children spend at least part of each day on the move.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. If it’s proving difficult to timetable an hour-long PE lesson, consider timetabling short blocks of activity into the day instead. For example, in a weekly 15-minute slot, children can learn a dance over the course of half a term. The only preparation required is a change of footwear, but the activity can break up a longer session when otherwise children might be sitting down for the majority of the time.
  2. If outside space is in short supply, consider staggering breaks to avoid overcrowding so that children have more physical space in which to play.
  3. Ensure that outdoor play equipment is available every playtime, but perhaps on a rotation so that children are encouraged try a variety of different games. This might also prolong the lifespan of the equipment and the children’s interest in it.
  4. Where space allows, get children moving around more in lessons, perhaps by sitting on the carpet for the introduction, moving back to desks for the main activity, and then on to the carpet again for the plenary — and possibly standing this time.
  5. Make sure you rotate which children are responsible for tidying up so that each child has to get up and move around between sessions.
  6. Encourage children to stand if the activity doesn’t involve writing. Do they really need to sit for mental maths or when using an app on a tablet? Counter-level workspaces in classrooms might be good for this.
  7. Foster opportunities for kinaesthetic learning so that children are actively engaged in practical activities.
  8. Introduce organised games at lunchtimes and encourage children to participate at least once a week.
  9. If there’s room, start a school allotment and encourage children to get involved.
  10. Introduce 5-minute exercises between lessons, particularly during long afternoon sessions.

The BBC has just broadcast a documentary about Sir Roger Bannister and his quest to break the four-minute mile. One striking feature of his childhood isn’t that he was heavily involved in organised sports from a young age, but that he was just naturally fit. His journey to school was a hilly, three-mile walk across the city of Bath, but being a child with energy to burn, he used to take some of it at a run. Without any specific training, he was able to win his school cross-country race three years in a row simply because he led an active life.

Much has obviously changed since then; a three-mile walk to school is no longer considered safe or practicable for most children. At the very least, though, we owe it to children to allow them to discover for themselves that they feel healthiest and happiest when leading an active life rather than spending hours slouching behind a desk or slumped in front of a screen.

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