On International Women’s Day, Gabby Logan calls for a revolution in the way our children are actively encouraged to put away their computers and mobile phones and engage with sport. It could cut obesity in a generation. And that means girls just as much as boys
I am truly fed up with hearing that children in Britain are the least fit they have ever been and that the rate of decline is twice the global average (0.95 per cent annually compared to an average of 0.43 per cent). I’m quite cross we are not stemming the rise of childhood obesity. It sends me into a mild rage that there is actually no set requirement for how much PE is taught in schools; contrary to opinion it’s left to the schools themselves to decide. Ofsted notes that schools who provide two hours a week physical exercise are more likely to have a rating of good or above. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
The more medals, trophies and match-winning performances I have seen in my professional TV life, watching the very best make demands of their bodies in ways few of us could ever imagine, the less I think fitness, health and sport for children is directly linked to that kind of sporting success.
The fit, sporty and motivated child knows all about the benefits of sport. We need to let them get on with it. Thankfully they are on the path to a healthy life; they won’t get diabetes or become obese. They will watch Jess Ennis-Hill and be inspired. They know where the local running club is. They know the difference between carbohydrates and protein and how much of each they should eat.
It is the hundreds of thousands of others for whom sport is a foreign country that we need to engage. Obesity is costing the NHS £5 billion a year, which is more than the judiciary, police and fire brigade put together, so it’s a problem worth thinking about. That £5 billion does not include the welfare benefits paid to people who can’t work because of diabetes or other obesity-related illnesses, let alone what the nation might be earning from tax receipts. Nor does it take into account the depression and mental health issues that come from a life lived in an obese world.
If you like exercise it all seems so simple. Have you ever gone for a run or swim, played tennis or done yoga, and regretted it afterwards? No, me neither. I have always felt better for moving. I’m so lucky because I worked this out at a young age. At first we had no choice: it was just what we did as a family. Swimming, Sunday walks with the dog, running, football in the garden, rounders in the summer. We lived opposite a school running track at one point, so after dinner Dad would take us over the road to race each other. There has never been a period of my life where I have fallen out of love with moving. Don’t get me wrong, when I was a gymnast, training 30 hours a week, there were times I had to dig deep for energy and motivation. I was 15 and hormonal. When the gymnastics stopped I had to find other ways of staying fit. Running has never felt easy to me, swimming makes me breathless, not every part of my body finds yoga a breeze, but I couldn’t imagine not doing them.
The habits of an active childhood endured through my teenage years and into adulthood. But what if my childhood had been sedentary? I am not sure I’d have got through puberty with so little drama for a start. I certainly wouldn’t know the joy of cold air in the lungs while running through the park on a winter’s morning. I wouldn’t understand that although my teenage body was changing and getting some unfamiliar curves and bumps, I could still use that body to jog, jump and dance. And when I pushed myself on a run, trained harder in the gym or danced the night away with my mates, that was when my body felt best. So, in turn, did I. So when big exams and times of stress came along, I already knew that running or swimming was going to make me feel better than reaching for a pill or a bottle.
You see, there is absolutely no argument against engaging children in sport and fitness. It’s one of the most blessedly simple, non-political debates you’ll ever have. Try it. Find the most antagonistic person you know and ask them why we shouldn’t make two hours’ physical education a week law. Ask them why we shouldn’t allocate more funds to train PE teachers. It will pay for itself within a political cycle when the obesity bill starts shrinking.
The Swedish Government set a seemingly impossible goal for itself in 1997. It wrote a plan called “Vision Zero”, promising to eliminate road fatalities and injuries altogether. Through provision of safer crossings, better motorway design and strict policing it has seen the most dramatic changes. In 2012 only one child under seven was killed in a road traffic accident compared to 58 in 1970. Overall deaths have been reduced by half since 2000. The Swedish Government may never hit that magic zero, but what a ballsy and brilliant target and it’s saving lives.
Who wouldn’t back a government of whatever political persuasion that sets out to eliminate obesity? Now all we have to do is work out how we do it. There are enough of us who want a healthy Britain, who want out kids to be free to realise their potential with bright futures and strong physical and mental health. It will take time, but if we don’t get this generation of kids active it’s going to take a whole lot longer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gabby Logan. Gabby’s latest articles.