Give health a sporting chance
So the NHS is going to be bankrupted by an obesity epidemic, participation in physical activity despite the ‘olympic effect’ has fallen prompting a government consultation into why this is the case and sitting at your desk all day is bad for your heart. We instinctively know all of this, exercise is good, excess calories are bad, lethargy leads to illness and sugary foods lead to obesity. The correlation between inactive and unhealthy lifestyles and costs on health services is well documented but reversing this negative impact is much harder and more complicated than we realise.
For those of you that know me, you would probably be forgiven for thinking that I am not that interested in sport per se. Back in the early noughties and in the days of area-based funding programmes and ‘action zone-itis’ of the first Blair government, I ran an action learning and development programme over three years for Sport Action Zones, (SAZ). These worked in a number of areas across England to raise the participation levels of communities in sports and physical activities. The programme had a lot of success in raising participation, not least because of the partnership approach and linking of sport to other funding pots and wider social outcomes. The new Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch could learn a lot from the SAZ experience, in that structures to make it happen and investment to make participation sustainable needs to be in place. But its not just about funding and infrastructure.
My experience of sport, like many others, was informed from my school days. Being a plump child and not particularly good at anything, I was often left standing in my aertex top, plimsolls and chest high PE knickers in the blistering rain, waiting to be picked reluctantly by a fit, competent team captain.
My PE teachers were not much better, their focus was on winning coveted inter-school competitions and stragglers and poor performers like myself were, at best, tolerated and at worst ignored. My parents could not have been more disinterested in sport and did not encourage any of us to take part in activities. So if campaigns like This Girl Can were around in my day, I am sure this would have motivated me and many others who had little direction and role models to keep on trying.
It was based on my experiences that I was determined that my children would find an interest in some form of physical activity, to ensure that my history did not repeat itself. My daughter found kick-boxing and my son found football, despite neither of them having a good experience with sport at school. This meant lots of trips, forgoing Saturday and Sunday mornings to ferry him around to matches and events and the cost of replacing equipment particularly football boots every few months to cope with ever expanding feet. My kids continue in physical activity now they are older and I put this down to them having opportunities and a supportive single parent with sufficient resources to make it happen.
It should come as no surprise that my conclusions about healthy and active lifestyles are rooted in our early experience and dependent on the following conditions:
- Parents/Guardians have to play a critical role in encouraging, supporting and motivating their children to take part in activities, regardless of their abilities
- Parents/Guardians have to have the time and financial resources and access to transport to support this participation
- Schools need to work with parents/guardians and recognise the value that extra-curricular activities have on a child’s development and reinforce positive messages about participation regardless of ability.
Taking this further, active participation in physical activity in adulthood comes down to having the time, resources and confidence to take part. I discovered I was a reasonable swimmer in my thirties and really enjoyed it, swimming up to three miles a week. But sustaining it was a problem because of working, commuting and family commitments which meant that something had to give way in my life. Now some of those responsibilities have abated I am looking to start swimming again but the cost of using a private gym where I can be guaranteed of a lane is going to set me back a pretty penny.
But participation is also linked to facilities that fit around people’s lifestyles and culture. A small group of muslim women I work with really want to take part in women only swimming sessions, but lack of transport, cost and suitability of the facilities have so far served as barriers for taking part. They are not a big enough group to make it worthwhile for a dedicated session and will find a regular routine difficult to maintain with their caring responsibilities. The costs of setting something up to cater specifically for these needs would be seen as disproportionate.
My point is that raising participation is not easy, when you factor in personal choice, family circumstances, resources and access.
European Sports Week starts in earnest in a couple of weeks time building european-wide momentum to drive sports participation. And small grant programmes like Freesport we manage on behalf of the Mayor for London provide an essential lifeline to communities to take part in local activities. But if we are to reverse the health challenges facing us through physical activity then we need a coordinated approach and one where we can make a generational difference. Lets start with families and schools.