Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Making fitness fun for all kids, not just sporty ones, would be a good first step in tackling obesity

It's taken decades for Fionola Meredith to learn that exercise can be enjoyable, after grim school PE lessons

Harsh lessons: schools could do better to make PE classes enjoyable for all
Harsh lessons: schools could do better to make PE classes enjoyable for all
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

There's no way around this unpalatable truth: the kids are getting fatter. Almost a quarter of children in Northern Ireland aged between 2 and 15 are overweight or obese.

And it's part of an even more bloated picture: Britain has one of the highest rates of obesity in western Europe, with levels rising even faster than those in the notoriously gut-busting US.

Two in three adults and a third of children leaving primary school are overweight or obese. UK rates of dangerous fatness are now twice the level they were in 1993.

Now a new study has been published, by Bristol University, that shows children's physical activity levels drop dramatically during their primary school years.

It found that, between the ages of six and 11, children became 17 minutes less active a week with every passing year. Kids need to do sufficient bouncing around, enough to leave them a bit out of breath and sweaty - known as moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) - in order to be healthy.

This study showed they started out fairly well - 61% of little ones in Year 1 did at least an hour of MVPA per day. But by Year 6, only 41% achieved this target - recommended by the UK's chief medical officers - of a daily hour of MVPA.

There's nothing surprising here, of course: we already know that one in three children do fewer than 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Our kids are becoming weaker, fatter, less fit. The consequences, as they grow towards adulthood, are obvious, and increasingly dire.

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And that's why making time for PE is so important. Get them out and frisking about early, keep them at it and the health benefits will be incalculable. It can even establish a lifelong love of exercise.

But the nature of the lessons is just as important as the time spent being active.

When I was at school, I hated PE. Utterly loathed it.

This was partly because I was no good at sports: a slow runner, a bit clumsy, not what you would call a natural team player.

I shivered on the edge of the hockey pitch, the wind whistling around my skimpy skirt, doing my best to avoid the hard ball, and the even harder hockey sticks, coming anywhere near me.

Sport seemed vicious, brutal, alien - not unlike the hockey girls liberally dousing themselves with Impulse body spray in the changing rooms afterwards.

So I can see why I did not endear myself to the PE teachers. But I think they failed me too and all the other not-so-sporty girls and boys just like me.

My memory is that the instructresses were strict, hard-faced and shouty. I remember no encouragement or patience or even any fleeting sense of fun. There were times where I felt actively humiliated.

Barked orders had to be followed exactly. Uniform regulations were also to be observed precisely and hair always tied neatly back in a ponytail.

The only way I could demonstrate my resistance to the grim regime was to turn up with my long, curly hair flowing wild, pulled down over my face.

When I was inevitably marched back to the changing rooms to fix this, I returned with my hair deliberately piled in a farcical pineapple on top of my head, using my school tie as a huge, ironic bow. This probably made my PE teachers loathe me even more, and the feeling was mutual. There are still too many schools in Northern Ireland where rugby or hockey are absurdly venerated, and their swaggering stars celebrated as heroes, while the sensitive, artistic or bookish kids feel lesser, unseen, because they have no place in the pantheon of these sporting greats.

But these children need their exercise just as much as the ones who are naturally fit and sporty.

Obesity has many causes and it's an incredibly complex problem to try to solve. But it's often rooted in feelings of shame and self-loathing.

Making physical education lessons as inclusive and kind and fun as possible, taking into account the differing abilities of all children, must surely be a key way of encouraging youngsters to care for their bodies, to take responsibility for them and to treat them with the respect they deserve.

It's only now that I'm in my 40s that I'm finally finding ways to enjoy exercise, and those magical endorphins it produces. That's how long it's taken me to shake off the misery of school PE lessons, which convinced me that sport was a bizarre form of unnecessary torture.

We must do better by this generation of children, if we really believe that sport is for everyone.

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