“We are now seeing young children presenting with diabetes and coronary heart conditions as young as seven – this is a national tragedy” says Dr Richard Weiler, who balances General Practice with a pioneering role as a Consultant in Sport and Exercise Medicine. He believes sedentary lifestyles have had a big impact and wants to get the nation’s children moving more and sitting less.
Over the past year he has been working with Sandringham School in Hertfordshire in a project funded by AbbVie to find ways to inject activity into the school day. “We are expecting children to sit at desks for seven hours a day. Two hours of PE a week is not enough and places an emphasis on sporting attainment that is not going to be for every child,” adds Dr Weiler. “One of the key problems facing any current attempts to change behaviour on physical activity is making changes stick in the long term.”
At Sandringham, a team of teachers and medical researchers started by looking at the published studies around physical activity programmes and found that in almost all cases the solution had been imposed by the authors. They decided to take a very different approach and, through facilitated workshops, allowed the children to come up with their own ideas for how they would like to add physical activity to their day. “We had some whacky ideas – but also brilliant ones. Young people are creative and astute and having them central to designing the project allowed us to start a conversation about what physical wellbeing meant to them” says Richard Davis, teacher at Sandringham.
The children voted on which measures they wished to try out and researchers aimed to measure the impact. A ‘pedometer steps’ competition between houses; greater availability of PE equipment around the school; and ‘treasure hunts’ around the school site were among the suggestions that were looked at. “Standing lessons were something we looked at and trialled with a small number of classes, but ensuring concentration levels and the learning environment were maintained was a challenge for the staff involved. You can’t just remove chairs from a room and expect class behaviour not to change. However, there are strategies that can be put in place in lessons to introduce greater standing and lots that can be learned from practical subjects where sitting is naturally less frequent.” says Richard Davis.
What the pilot has shown is that getting objective, empirical measures of physical activity change in a school environment is extremely challenging. But it has pointed us in some interesting directions on motivation, attitudes and beliefs about physical activity among the young people who participated. Children surveyed at the end of the research showed a marked skew towards feeling more energetic in the mornings than at the start of the project. Reported motivation for physical activity was far more likely to be as antidote to a sedentary school day and feeling healthy than to be better at sport. A finding that suggests perhaps the post-2012 Olympic focus on elite sport as motivation and inspiration may not be the right strategy for getting children on the move.