The role of government in our health is not without controversy. Whether it is the sugar tax or a minimum pricing on alcohol – as well intended as these policies are, arguably – most of us don’t want to be told by a government minister that our behaviour is harming our bodies.
So I had slightly mixed feelings when one particular Scottish government announcement landed in my inbox a few weeks ago. In it, ministers urged every education institution to do its bit to help make Scotland “the first Daily Mile nation”.
As the name suggests, this involves entire institutions or groups of people setting aside some time to walk, jog or run one mile every day. Research indicates it improves physical health, as well as emotional wellbeing.
And it is an inspiring sight – hundreds of small children enthusiastically pushing open the doors of their school to get some fresh air and exercise alongside their teachers, many of whom rarely see daylight between November and March.
Enthused by energy
As I spoke to Daily Mile founder Elaine Wyllie outside an Edinburgh primary school last week, it was impossible to not get enthused by the energy. We watched the headteacher race her P7s around the school, and a group of P6 pupils help the two-year-olds from the nursery class complete their final laps, as pupils from across the school spurred each other and their teachers on to “just keep going”.
There is also no denying that there is a problem. Statistics on weight and physical fitness in Scottish children and young people are shocking – and have been for a while. And undoubtedly, habits are established early on in life. Introducing a daily dose of exercise can never happen early enough.
But should it require a government initiative? Do we really need a ministerial letter to realise something has to change? Prompted by the government’s move, this month, Scottish Borders College became the first FE college to take up the Daily Mile. Student numbers on the programme are very low, but it is hoped this will change.
I fear it may be an uphill struggle. Colleges are not like schools. Their timetables are incredibly complicated structures and many students are only on campus for a few hours for two or three days of the week, making a daily activity challenging. A structured, regimented system may not possible in the way it is in schools, or even other workplaces.
College students have also had 16 years or more to fall out of love with sports – and to build lives that do not include daily exercise. And that is before you start on college staff and management, who, of course, are also meant to be getting their running shoes on.
So with everything colleges already have to deal with, should they wait for this particular government infatuation to pass and leave it to schools to get young Scots moving? Is it even a college’s role to chase their students round the playing field?
I believe it has to be. A college’s role is to prepare learners for work. Ensuring they know what is required to be the sort of healthy, happy person employers would want in their workplace has to be part of this.
So while we maybe don’t need the government to tell us how to be healthier, maybe colleges, and their staff, should lead by example.