Tai chi or street dance might revive interest among children who are turned off by traditional activities, says Jennai Cox
Aerobics, yoga and dance will gradually become as common a feature in schools as they are in health clubs. Encouraged by a government that says it wants to reverse the decline in school sports and halt the rise in obesity, many schools are attempting to engage more children in exercise by widening the range of activities on offer.
But for all those experimenting with the popularity of cheerleading and tai chi, there are others with reservations about the true fitness benefits of such exercise. Many teachers find it difficult to believe that an hour of Pilates or street dance can be as physically or mentally character-building as a run-around outdoors with a hockey stick or football.
Those in any doubt about the physical demands of any dance-inspired activity need only watch a class. David Souter, a personal trainer who teaches hip-hop and street dance to eight to 15-year-olds at a number of schools in Newcastle, says 20 minutes into his first class the children were stripping off and lying on the floor to catch their breath. "But that isn't to say they weren't enjoying it," he says. "By the end, all those hiding in the back were jumping around in the front row."
David maintains that his sessions are probably more challenging than a game of netball or hockey because the children are moving around all the time.
"Eighty per cent of the time in many traditional team sports you are standing around doing nothing," he says. "Only one person can have the ball at a time, so unless you have it, or are marking, you don't have to make much effort unless you really want to. In a dance class there is no escape; everyone has to do something all the time."
What surprises him as much as the teachers he works with is the equal appeal many dance classes have to boys and girls. Even cheerleading can now count a number of young men among its participants, says Tessa Crow, of Future Cheer, which runs workshops and competitions. When schools enquire, she always sends a male and female instructor to demonstrate that the sport is not just for girls.
"It is a very physical activity and requires, or can develop, a lot of upper body strength," Tessa says. "Once the boys see this they are as keen as any girl to get involved." She points out that, as well as the individual effort required, the team-building element, which some teachers believe is lacking in some of the newer forms of exercise in schools, is tremendous. "When they are building a stunt, the flier on the top has to be able to trust whoever is at the bottom. It keeps them fit mentally and also teaches them to be aware of the needs of others around them."
Cheerleading has certainly had that effect on the children at Netherhall School in Cumbria, who visit local primary schools to teach and share the enjoyment of a sport they love. Krista Davies, who runs the cheerleading teams, says that although they are attracted by the apparent glamour, few are put off by the hard work required to learn and practise what is a vocally and physically challenging activity.
If an enthusiasm for movement and sport is going to be fostered in today's over-sedentary generation, says Sara Grimshaw, director of sport at Oldfield School in Bath, pupils need a wider choice. At Oldfield School, tai chi, hip-hop and ballroom dancing are taught alongside more traditional activities. "It is easy to pick out those who will excel, but our challenge is to give all the kids an activity they enjoy and will therefore want to do."
In many cases, some of the more recently fashionable forms of exercise can complement traditional games, according to Nuala Coombs, director of the Institute of Pilates. There is no reason, she says, why schoolchildren who are keen on cricket, rugby and hockey should not emulate some of their stars and use Pilates to improve their performance. "Many professionals now use it as part of their core conditioning and one of our trainers in New Zealand has worked with the All Blacks," she says.
Because of its emphasis on posture and using the body's smaller, often neglected, muscles, Pilates would also help the growing number of schoolchildren who have neck and back problems caused by spending too many hours in front of a computer.
Yoga would work in much the same way, says Liisa Halme, an instructor with Yogoloji. "Yoga teaches body awareness and improves balance and co-ordination," she says. "It also enhances muscular strength, endurance and flexibility, but in a more internal and less aggressive manner than team sports." Because yoga requires concentration, it can also help children with school work. Its use of animal and environmental names for postures, such as sun salutation and downward dog, mean it potentially holds appeal for even the youngest schoolchildren. "We need a more holistic approach to teaching exercise to children," says Liisa.
Robert Day, fitness trainer with Total Health Personal Training, agrees:
"Mixing up what children do offers them a far more rounded programme. Just as adults need variety in their exercise regime to avoid monotony and to keep improving their fitness levels, so do children." Ninety per cent of adults who exercise enjoyed sport at school. "They learned it was not just about excelling, but about picking up a healthy habit that lasts for the rest of their life."