Mrs Motivator goes on the run

21st June 1996 at 01:00
At this moment, as no doubt in houses across the land, the men of this family are slumped, each to his own sofa, in front of Euro 96. The phrase "couch potato" rises to the lips, but it wouldn't be true. One has just come in from playing tennis, the other passed on lunch for an hour at the gym. As for me, (she wrote smugly), I swam 30 lengths earlier in the day.

We approach physical fitness with the zeal of the converted in this house, having taken 40 years to realise that regular exercise really does do miracles for the body, mind and spirit.

And what is true for us adults is clearly true for children, too. In the seven schools I've been to over the past six years, levels of physical activity have fluctuated wildly, and along with it their well-being. Without any doubt, the schools where they've been happiest and most mentally alert have been the ones where they've been most physically active.

What that activity has been hasn't mattered in the least. Over the years they've done athletics, hockey, swimming, rugby, soccer, basketball, tennis, gymnastics, lacrosse, netball, cross-country running and baseball, and the only important thing has been whether what they've been doing has been strenuous, sustained and frequent.

Because this doesn't happen nearly as often as parents, seeing PE written across their children's timetables, might think.

I've watched netball games so half-hearted the players might as well have sat behind the goals and painted their nails for all the exercise they were getting. Rounders and cricket are a waste of space in work-out terms, and primary school sessions on "the apparatus" are often more a cloakroom of hunt-the-gym-shoe.

When researchers videoed 40 summer games lessons in secondary schools in south-west England two years ago, they discovered that pupils were "very active" for less than a fifth of lessons. Throwing activities were the worst, with pupils active for less than 3 per cent of the time, but even in swimming lessons, the best students were active for less than half the time.

It's well known, now, that most eight to 16-year-olds don't get their heart rate up to the equivalent of 10 minutes' brisk walk a week, and that for all John Major's talk of sport for all, the demands of the national curriculum have meant that the number of 14-year-olds who don't get two hours of physical education a week has doubled over the past nine years.

Is it madness to think such things could happen every day? If so, then the corporate world is crazy, too, because many cutting-edge companies now go to enormous lengths - with on-site fitness centres, personal trainers, and posters exhorting staff to "Log off! Go get physical with a colleague!" - to make employees take a break and refresh themselves (and their work) with physical exercise.

It's good news that we're finally addressing the problems of junior fitness, but it seems, given our dismal baseline, that we're trying to do a great deal, with very little. Not to mention the fact that, yet again, we're asking schools to do all those things that we, as a society, can no longer be bothered with.

Because as far as I can see, schools are being asked to introduce children to every game under the sun, revive skipping rhymes, promote motor skills, encourage active play, run sports teams, organise matches, foster excellence, spot emerging talents, present a huge platter of non-competitive activities, and of course, do it all by painstaking and painless encouragement, never by simply saying "you must".

Yet if we really want better health and happiness for our schoolchildren, we can start tomorrow, without any special schemes, studies or equipment. Without any extra money, or even much time.

Although, by all accounts, it isn't up to schools, anyway. According to Peter Helms, professor of child health at Aberdeen University "overall physical activity in children is most strongly related to how physically active the mother is".

So, if you'll excuse me, I'll just go downstairs, switch the soccer off, and put my Mr Motivator tape on. Then see me run.

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