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Couch is out - coach is in

A new survey shows that Scottish youngsters are forsaking the couch and computer in favour of playing more team sports. Roddy Mackenzie reports

Scottish schoolchildren are getting up off the couch to follow the coach and participating more in sport. A survey to be released within the next few weeks by Edinburgh University will show that levels of out-of-school physical activity by children are on the increase.

It follows recent reports that suggest children are spending too much time in front of televisions and computers and leading an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

Dr Candace Currie, the principal investigator of the Scottish study, "Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children", will release the full findings before the summer. But Dr Currie has told TES Scotland that the findings are more encouraging than perhaps had been expected when the study was commissioned.

"I can say that, generally, our investigations show there has been an increase in physical activity among schoolchildren, and it is significant," she says.

"Our study - which was conducted in the spring of 1998 - shows that there are fewer children leading a sedentary lifestyle."

Dr Currie's findings confirm the results of an international survey, "Health and Health Behaviour among young People", which studied the out-of-school physical activities of children aged between 11 and 15 in 27 countries in 1997-98. That survey asked how many youngsters took part in vigorous physical activity (at least slow jogging) out of school hours, and Scotland fared well in the research.

In terms of youngsters who exercised twice a week or more, Scotland was ranked third for 11-year-olds and fifth for both 13 and 15. Northern Ireland finished top on all three age categories.

The other question looked at how many exercised for more than two hours a week out of school, which perhaps suggests the ones that are taking part in organised sport. Again, Scotland fared well, though figures fell off as the children grew older. For participation at the age of 11, Scotland came seventh, but by the age of 15 it had fallen to 10th. Northern Ireland fared below Scotland in each of the age categories with Germany and Austria the most dominant nations.

Interestingly, England was well down the survey and, while 85 per cent of German boys and 70 per cent of girls exercised for more than two hours a week out of school at the age of 15, the comparative figures for England were 61 per cent and 40 per cent respectively (Scotland: 72 per cent and 52 per cent). Another National Opinion Poll, carried out on behalf of the English Basketball Association and looking at six to 18-year-olds, showed that while 80 per cent of schoolchildren spend less than five hours a week playing sport, 70 per cent wanted to play more but claimed they did not have the opportunities.

While the new evidence from Edinburgh University is seen as encouraging, some believe there is still a gap to be bridged when schoolchildren are progressing to represent their country in sport.

Douglas Arnil, technical administrator to the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU), believes that the young players coming through from the schools are not as fit as they used to be.

"They're not as big, strong or fast as they were and this presents a problem through to the top level of the game," he points out.

"We're looking to build something in to our whole development programme as youngsters are coming to us from such a low fitness base from the schools. I think it's a social thing as much as anything but, compared to other nations, we are one of the lowest in terms of basic fitness of our schoolchildren.

"Comparatively speaking, I think other nations have to bridge the gap between Edinburgh and Glasgow and we have to go from Edinburgh to New York in terms of fitness."

While the SRU is clearly concerned about the problem and will take steps to try to improve the fitness of young players who come under its wing, Arneil believes the problem is deep-rooted.

"It is something that has to be dealt with through the education system as every child has to pass through that," he stresses.

Sportscotland is aware that the issue is a complex one and will take on board the findings of the new Edinburgh University study.

"We have no evidence that children are less active than they used to be," says development officer Kirsten Collins. "It is always difficult if you are looking at children under 14. If you measure a child at seven and then at nine, who is to say whether any improvement is down to better fitness or just natural growth?

"There are a lot of issues here. There is one report that says that children are not walking or cycling so much to school and are being dropped off in their parents' cars because of what has been called 'stranger danger'. There are fewer children abducted now than there were 20 years ago, but the media coverage is so much greater.

"There is also evidence that although as many as 95 per cent of children now have bikes, they tend not to cycle much outside the close environment of the home."

Jim Sinclair, the children's programme director at the Scottish Football Association (SFA), acknowledges that the fitness of schoolchildren is something that has concerned him but says there are signs that fitness levels have picked up.

"I hope I'm not deluding myself but I can't say that the children I come into contact with are any less fit now than in the past," he says. "It sounds like blowing our own trumpet, but because the SFA is increasing the participation levels at ever younger ages, the youngsters are picking up good habits.

"The senior clubs are also looking at players at a younger and younger age and so they are getting good coaching earlier in their careers. We put children through balancing, running and co-ordination exercises and they come through OK.

"I think the message is permeating down. Even something as basic as players taking fluids has been taken on board and most of the youngsters that participate in our festivals will turn up carrying water bottles."

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