Why physical activity should not just start at 16

They’re out. Figures from Sport England’s latest Active People Survey have been released in the last week – and if you delve deeper than the headlines, they don’t make for fantastic reading.

During the period from April 2014 to March 2015, 15.49 million people aged 16 years of over (35.5%) played sport for at least 30 minutes at ‘moderate intensity’ at least once a week. Whilst it represented an increase of 1.4 million compared with 2005/06, it is also a decrease of 222,000 compared with October 2014.

We have argued previously on this site that these measurement tools leave a lot to be desired – pointing out that statistics focusing on 30 minutes of exercise once a week are weak at best. We do not intend going over old ground here.

Instead, the latest survey results, coupled with statistics from ukactive, point to a growing issue that needs to be addressed: the physical activity levels of our young children. The Active People Survey now includes data from 14 year olds and above – a start. But both the Government and society will only benefit if more is done to encourage physical activity among our toddlers and our primary school children.

ukactive has this week released a report that shows half of seven-year-olds in the UK are not getting the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. With both the WHO and England Chief Medical Officer having this as an evidence-based guideline, it is right that ukactive refers to physical inactivity levels as “pandemic”.

A change in the mindset of our national psyche is required. Yes, we need Government funded organisations to do more in promoting the benefits of sport and activity, but we also need individuals to take more responsibility for their own health, and the health of their families.

Both physical activity and sport benefit people across the generations. They help our very young children remain healthy, help our primary and secondary school children develop characteristics of hard work and teamwork that they may not otherwise have developed, help them focus their brain more and so get better results, and they help our country’s workforce concentrate more easily and release natural endorphins that, in a lot of cases, make them better at their job. They also keep our adults out of GP’s surgeries and A&E’s, saving our NHS millions, if not billions, of pounds each and every year.

The benefits are inspiring. So what do we need to do?

Here’s a start:

  • Encourage physical activity among children:
    • Help them see the benefit of activity with classes designed around moving, not desks
    • Make physical activity a key-stage one and two requirement
    • Increase the levels of physical activity a school is required to provide
    • Give every primary and secondary school a qualified PE teacher
  • Build daily activity into our everyday lives:
    • Take the stairs not the lift
    • Get off a bus stop or two earlier
    • Maybe even hold walking meetings (why not?!)
  • Build communities that encourage physical activity:
    • Where the school, doctors and playing fields are within walking distance
    • Where stairs are put at the front of buildings, not at the back

And the Government, of course, needs to be more collaborative, and take a more long-term view. Whilst this is not politically popular as it involves looking beyond a five-year parliamentary cycle, the benefits should outweigh any parties’ quest for complete authority.

If half of our seven-year-olds are not getting the recommended 60 minutes of daily activity, what hope do we have as a nation in trying to get our 16, 25, 45 and 60 year olds active? Like so many other habits and best practices, what you do when you are young gets ingrained in your minds. The equation is relatively simple: young age + physical activity = a more active nation.