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Is Childhood Inactivity Affecting the NHS?

A recent report published by ukactive Kids has highlighted the problems we face with childhood inactivity in the UK, and how they could be addressed to take pressure off our health service. The report, known as Generation Inactive, explores our understanding of children’s health and fitness in primary schools, and seeks to offer an answer to the growing number of inactive children across the country.

In a study by the All Party Commission in 2013, it was found that only half of 7 year olds currently meet the recommended physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of exercise each day. This statistic was significantly lower for girls than boys. Regional studies found that a large majority of 11 year olds do not take part in enough physical activity, and even less remain active as they enter their teens. Lord Sebastian Coe has described the children of today as ‘the least active generation in history’ as the growth of technology and the modern world leads to people spending more time sat down indoors. It is also feared that these children could be the first in existence to have a life expectancy shorter than their parents’. Figures like this not only contribute to poor fitness levels in young people, but also to the growing problems of obesity faced by both adults and children. During an assessment of 13,000 children it was found that one in five kids born in the early 2000s was obese by the age of 11. This has led to growing concerns about the future of our National Health Service as it currently costs £8.2billion per year for the NHS to look after inactive people.

Children’s BMI (Body Mass Index) is currently measured in primary schools as part of the national Child Weight Measurement Programme. However it is important to remember that any strategy to increase children’s activity in schools should not be solely based on BMI and weight. It has been suggested that having a normal BMI and being unfit can carry more health risks than being overweight and physically fit. In turn, this can have a knock on effect on the NHS as poor physical fitness from a young age can lead to further health problems in adulthood. This is why the Generation Inactive report suggests that more should be done to measure physical fitness and health, and not just weight or obesity levels.

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Through this study, ukactive Kids assessed data from a number of primary schools and primary academies in England. The research found that none of the selected schools directly measured their pupils’ cardiorespiratory fitness levels from an outside source, and only 1% of schools formally measured children’s physical literacy and motor skills. Less than half of the schools surveyed said that they tracked the amount of time children actually spent being active during their PE lessons, without including time spent getting changed or listening to instructions. The importance of measuring and keeping track of young people’s health and fitness is often overlooked. However in order to understand the problem and decide the best course of action and improvement, this sort of research needs to be done.

These findings have been presented at the same time that the government promised to give an extra £150million per year towards physical education in schools through the PE and Sports Premium funding scheme. This was set up in 2013 and gives headteachers funding to improve PE and Sports provision for pupils at their school. Many schools used this to help improve their outdoor play areas, work with specially trained sports coaches and buy new equipment. As a result of the grant scheme, there have been improvements in PE teaching quality, and an increase in the variety and quality of sports equipment at these schools. This study, conducted by Ofsted, also found that many headteachers had used their funding to improve links with sports clubs in the wider community.

Making Improvements in Activity Levels

The results of the Generation Inactive study have shown that many children have poor activity levels, and this negatively affects their health. Suggestions have been made by ukactive Kids as to how physical fitness levels can be improved and maintained into adult life.

Due to the concerns that a child with a normal BMI is not necessarily a healthy child, it has been recommended that the government do more to measure heart health and fitness rather than just weight. This measurement should be done in a way which is enjoyable for children and encourages activity, as less confident children sometimes find weight management strategies intimidating and embarrassing. According to ukactive Kids, the government should also ensure that teachers have enough skills to deliver more effective PE lessons as part of the National Curriculum. Nurseries and pre-schools should dedicate time for younger children to engage in active play to develop motor skills in a positive social environment.

Advice for headteachers on improving fitness and health focuses around a ‘whole day approach’ to physical activity. This would see a greater focus on incorporating activity throughout the day and not just in PE lessons. Taking this sort of initiative could include setting up clubs before and after school, as well as giving children a chance to be active during academic lessons. It is also recommended that schools support children with their physical fitness in the same way they do with academic subjects. Any children who are disengaged or struggling would receive extra support to ensure no child is left behind. Improving the way PE lessons and extracurricular sports are delivered in schools is important, however there should also be a focus on active recreational play. The danger of being too heavily concerned with competitive sport is that some children find this intimidating and will become more alienated and disengaged as a result.

Recommendations have been made to children’s activity providers which suggest more clear guidance should be given on any available initiatives in the local area. This would give schools and local authorities a better opportunity to get kids involved in active play and sports outside of school times. By giving children the chance to take part in fun clubs and activities, this can encourage an interest in sport, health and fitness from a young age and help to maintain it into adulthood.

Overall, the findings of the ukactive Kids Generation Inactive report have highlighted that not enough is being done to correctly measure and improve on children’s activity levels in the UK. It has been suggested that a greater focus on health and fitness would be more beneficial than the current approach of BMI and weight management. Low levels of physical activity have been linked to a number of health problems including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression. These issues already put pressure on the NHS and the strain will only get worse as inactive children grow into inactive and unhealthy adults.

With better sport and activities provision in primary schools, the importance of living a healthy and active lifestyle will be presented to children from a young age and hopefully remain with them as adults. However it’s vital that any new policies do not focus too much on competitive sport and that fun active play is valued as highly.

If you would like any advice on how to get funding to improve sports or play facilities at your school, please contact us through the form on this page. We would be happy to help with any questions you have.


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