“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.