Using sport to tackle childhood obesity

This year we have seen some bold statements focusing on food as childhood obesity’s biggest issue. Chris Wright, head of wellbeing at the Youth Sport Trust, discusses a renewed focus and the role sport can play

In both the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan Chapter 2 and Ofsted’s thematic review of Obesity, Healthy Eating and Physical Activity published earlier this year, it is apparent there is a clear stance on food being the biggest issue. However, it is a common misconception that this is due to people eating more calories.

Research in fact suggests that energy intake has declined since the 1970s, with fat content reducing in our food since the 1980s. Yet a third of children are overweight or obese as they leave primary school, and in our poorest communities the rate of clinical obesity is rising dramatically. So why the focus on food and what role does physical activity have to play?

Exercise over extra fries

Children around the world have stopped moving. We are simply not doing enough physical activity. As Professor John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, states: “We are a species that is born to move such as our prehistoric fore fathers and inactivity is killing the human race.”

Physical inactivity is recognised as an important precursor of chronic ill-health but is something that we can take positive action against. Modifying behaviours from an early age and understanding those most in need of intervention is critical to young peoples’ physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

Children that are inactive by the age of six have a higher risk of developing non-communicable diseases. More significantly, for today’s generation of children, inactivity is also having an increased effect on their mood, increased stress, anxiety disorders, their general happiness and potential in life.

What action can schools take?

More money is being allocated to primary schools to help cut childhood obesity through the Primary PE and Sport Premium but if we do not support schools to spend the funding in the right way, it will be a wasted opportunity.
So what action can schools take and what is in their gift to influence children’s healthy active lifestyle choices? Fundamentally, schools are there to educate and health education is part of this. Ofsted’s report outlines a very clear position regarding this and in it Amanda Spielman states “education for health is essential and must be done well.” But this will not happen if schools are devoting time and energy to things in which they are neither expert nor likely to have an impact.
There were key recommendations laid out in both reports that provide schools with a clear mandate to take positive action. More importantly, it is clear what the role of schools should be and how physical education, sport and healthy active lifestyle education are key drivers for children’s health.

Fresh ideas

By 2020, we want to see every primary school teacher professionally developed to help teach physical literacy with the same skill and passion as language literacy and numeracy. We know that for all the training a primary school teacher receives, they often get very little guidance on how to educate their pupils in and through movement, exercise and physical activity.
We welcome the renewed focus on the 30-minute ambition and the mentioning E F of initiatives such as walking programmes and an active mile, but our view is that this ambition should be viewed through the lens of cognitive performance, how it affects mood and readiness to learn. Whilst the active mile can support increased physical activity we need to consider the additional ways in which the 30 active minutes can be incorporated into the structure of the school day through variety and choice.
If you are already, or are planning to deliver an active mile initiative, why not try modelling the Team Pursuit in the velodrome, where one team hunts down the other, for your active mile? Or introduce sport skills to it such as dribble a football, dribble a hockey ball, bounce a basketball? When children are moving, more neurons are firing and making connections in the brain.

Starting early

We have been working in collaboration with Public Health England, Ofsted and Loughborough University to ensure the importance of physical activity in the early years is recognised for its impact on school readiness, physical development goals and ongoing emotional wellbeing.
There is a huge challenge to children achieving 180 minutes of physical activity every day, particularly where screen, media and restraining children’s movement (pushchairs, highchairs and car seats) is so prominent and where natural space to move more around the home can be limited. Therefore, we see the early years and childcare settings as a key intervention point to try and engage children and families in healthy active lifestyle behaviours. This is why we are focused on the importance of the early years in building the foundations of movement and wellbeing in our 2018-2022 strategy.
We have a clear evidence base for what works to increase physical activity in the early years and a commitment in our strategy to use active play to increase social mobility.         We have developed a suite of materials called Healthy Movers to encourage children and their families to be active. As part of this, we also have a partnership with PJ Masks that helps all children in this age group achieve 180 minutes of daily physical activity. We hope through our evidence-based approach to delivering high quality PE, sport and physical activity experiences, we can change children’s health behaviours.

Behaviour change

The Youth Sport Trust sees a host of opportunities in both Ofsted’s and the government’s reports to support schools and families to contribute to the healthy weight of all children. Our number one objective is to help young people be their very best in life through achieving and maintaining good physical, social and emotional health and a refocus on the importance of 60 active minutes for all children will support this.
Any approach to increasing physical activity should be to create healthy habits. We need to create active habits through a child’s day and not see the initiatives like the active mile in isolation, but instead as a catalyst to further physical activity. Behaviour change comes with diversity and movement increased throughout the whole day, from when children get out of bed to when they return, with variety in intensity and duration. Investment in PE needs to continue to focus on key skills and developing children’s’ physical literacy, so they are confident beyond PE to adopt healthy active lifestyles and try new sports.

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