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How Sally gets her kids on the road to a fitter life

Former Olympic gold medal hurdler Sally Gunnell talks to Lisa Salmon about the challenges of getting her little ones off the sofa, and why she's spearheading a new campaign to help other parents get their kids moving.

As the only female  British athlete to have held concurrent Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles, Sally Gunnell is more aware than most mums about the  benefits of physical activity.

But having been a top-class athlete and being married to an athletics coach and former runner doesn't mean she finds it easy to get her own kids away from screens and enjoying exercise.

Knowing how tough it can be to get children off the sofa and physically active, Gunnell's championing the new Getting Kids Moving initiative, which explores the challenges to physical activity faced by today's families, and suggests solutions to encourage children to move more.

The 49-year-old mum says: "Even though I'm really enthusiastic about physical activity, and enjoy it as much as I can, my kids definitely still need a lot of encouragement to get active.

"With three children, who all love their computer games and are happy to enjoy themselves in front of the TV, I know how difficult it can be to tear kids away. As a family, we've had to put in place a lot of rules and get quite creative about making sure our kids get moving regularly."

New research carried out by Leeds Beckett University for the Getting Kids Moving report, commissioned by Ferrero's +Sport Move and Learn Project, found the struggle to balance demanding work commitments with family life means many UK children aren't achieving the recommended amount of daily physical activity.

While almost all parents believe it's important for children to be active, a third underestimate how much exercise their children need, and one in five (20%) believe just 30 minutes is sufficient. In fact, NHS guidelines recommend children over five are active for an hour a day.

"Helping kids understand how much better being active makes them feel is the most important thing," says Gunnell.

"Making it a fun way to spend time together as a family is a huge part of this."

Part of the difficulty in getting children moving is the amount of time they spend on screens - four in five parents report their child uses screens in the week (79%) and at the weekend (81%), and more than half (51%) admit their children spend more than three hours at weekends looking at screens.

Yet one in five parents don't put any limits on their children's screen time.

"Screen time is dominating their lives, and the time they're using screens is when they would have been active," says Gunnell, who has three sons - Finley (17), Luca (15), and Marley (11) - with her husband Jonathan Bigg, a former 800m runner and an athletics coach.

"Like all other kids, it seems, mine do like screens - I'm not one of these parents whose kids are always out running," she says.

"I do really have to monitor their screen time and get them to do other things - it's about getting the balance right.

"My 15-year-old, in particular, would much rather sit in front of a screen, and I have to make sure he doesn't."

Gunnell's approach seems to have worked a treat with her eldest son Finley, who's keeping up the family tradition and is a top 10 junior 400m runner and is currently moving up to 800m.

"We're really lucky with him, he makes a lot of sacrifices for his running and is really dedicated, which is lovely to see," says Gunnell proudly. "I do feel sorry for him, because he stands on the start line and somebody will announce that he's my son. But he's had to get used to that, and he deals with it really well."

She says her middle son, Luca, struggles with the sporting expectations that can be piled on the children of successful athletes.

"He's gone down the skateboarding, biking route," she explains, "because no one can judge him and it's not competitive. He says people always expect him to win because of who his mum is, and that's really difficult."

Gunnell makes sure the boys walk to meet the bus to school, and points out: "The best money we ever spent was on a trampoline - we try to make it a bit of family fun, getting outside and spending half an hour jumping together."

The Getting Kids Moving report found time pressures prevent families from being more active together, with nearly three quarters (72%) of parents saying they need more time, and 48% citing cost as a barrier.

Most parents (90%) think schools have a responsibility to teach children about the importance of physical activity, but Gunnell says: "While nearly all parents know their children should be active, most of them think that should be done within school time, and that's not always happening. For parents, time pressure and work commitments are the real barriers, and it's about finding ways to fit everything in."

The report recommends that parents encourage children to be active by setting a good example and being active themselves.

It points out that even small changes like a 15-minute walk in the park on the way home from school can make a big difference, and it suggests getting active outside as much as possible, including walking or cycling to school.

In addition, families could try to find ways to be active indoors when the weather's bad, by playing active video games or dancing, for example.

"There's so much you can enjoy as a family," says Gunnell, who suggests dog walking, treasure hunts, bike riding, indoor assault courses, camping, bushwalking, and involving children in little chores around the home, like gardening, washing the car and cleaning.

"It doesn't need to be expensive - just keeping an activity box at home or in the car ready with a bat and ball can help the whole family be ready to move.

"Getting active can be incredible fun - 20 minutes spent doing physical activity together involves more quality engagement than watching TV."

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