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Capturing the young at heart

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach" and "We are what we eat" are everyday statements that trip off the tongue without a hint of malice. But if recent statistics about the state of the nation's hearts are to be believed, these words should be taken as read.

Coronary heart disease is Britain's biggest killer - responsible for more than 465 deaths a day. And, according to the British Heart Foundation, unless children start the fight against heart disease while they are still in the classroom and pick up healthy eating and exercise habits during their school years they are risking an early death.

"We won't go so far as to prescribe exactly what children should be eating or tell their parents to enrol them in expensive sports clubs. But we do want to encourage them to become more active and cut down on the amount of junk food they eat," says Heather Waring, education manager at the British Heart Foundation.

The Foundation is particularly concerned that many children don't know what it is to feel fit, with most teenagers taking part in less than two hours of PE a week. A report published last year by the Institute for Public Policy Research showed that more than 70 per cent of children have dispensed with walking or cycling to school, preferring to use the bus or cadging a lift from their parents. "We appreciate that parents are wary about the safety aspect of young children walking long distances to school, but this is an activity they can do together and exercise is very beneficial to the heart."

The Foundation has been developing teaching materials for primary schools and Exercise and Heart Health, aimed at five to 11-year-olds, is a collaborative effort between the Foundation and Loughborough University.

The pack is designed to cover key stage 2 across the curriculum. It is divided into six 30-minute lesson plans made up of activity games, follow-up suggestions, practical guidance on the teaching of physical activity, supporting information on heart health, and a series of activity cards.

Lessons can be taught in a school hall or gymnasium, but where indoor teaching space is limited they can be adapted to be taught in the playground or field. Lack of funds means the Foundation has to charge for the packs (Pounds 9.99), but they are photocopiable.

"If children are told that exercise is good for them, they will carry that knowledge right through into adult life," says Heather Waring. "But it is no good telling five-year-olds that if they don't exercise or eat properly they are building up problems for later life. Years mean nothing to them. They think in terms of days so it is important for exercise and good nutritional information to become an integral part of their learning - something they can take for granted."

o The British Heart Foundation, 14 Fitzhardinge Street, London WlH 4DH, tel: 071 935 0185. Registered charity number 225971

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