Why are so many of our children obese? Because our approach to PE is wrong

By Phil Jones is Director of the Military Preparation Schools

Child obesity levels have risen once again, according to National Child Measurement Programme figures published last week. The percentage of overweight 10- and 11- year olds in this country has increased by 0.7%, and while that’s a relatively small increase on the face of things, it’s important that a spotlight is shone on the direction in which things are heading.

There is a need, and an urgent need, for schools to educate children – and often wider families too – about how vital it is to be active and move away from a sedentary lifestyle. It is the responsibility of our Government to ensure that this is firmly embedded within the curriculum of today.

As a society, we have to make sure that young people not only understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle, but that they also live it, enjoying the many long-lasting benefits that this can bring. Education on healthy living must be a central part of a school’s curriculum; this massive and vitally important aspect of all our lives cannot be overlooked simply because it’s not a comfortable fit.

Early intervention is needed

I work with 14-16 year olds who come to learn at Military Preparation Schools across England and Wales. We have positively impacted the lives of scores of young people through our approach to ‘active learning’, but a large part of what we do is tackling deep-rooted lifestyle habits head-on.

By the time many teenagers reach us, it’s challenging to break these patterns. It can be done, but is far from easy. The main request we make of our learners is a commitment to taking part in ritual physical training in the great outdoors, every single day.

We make sure time is dedicated specifically to this, and there is absolutely no reason on earth why this approach cannot be adapted for pre-school learners and the first years of primary school.

A commitment to physical activity and healthy eating is absolutely integral to the stability of each and every generation. It has to be encouraged and pushed hard from a very young age.


Ritual physical training needs to turn into a positive habit

Ritual, daily physical exercise is a habit of highly successful people. It shouldn’t be seen as a chore, and changing attitudes towards healthy living is one of the biggest challenge facing the education sector right now.

There needs to be a national, joined-up approach to tackling obesity through education, driven by Government through training providers. The Government’s heavily criticised measures have focused on predominantly on sugar tax and junk food to date, but the problem runs much deeper.

A focus on healthy lifestyles should be embedded into the learning process from the youngest possible age, and then sustained and followed through until the point when children leave education. Yet physical fitness and home economics are consistently the two subject areas that are cut from the curriculum at every opportunity. This trend cannot continue.

When I look back to my time at school, PE was a big part of the curriculum, while home economics lessons made sure that, at the very least, I knew how to cook a basic nutritious meal for myself. These are the core life skills that we cannot allow our children to lose.

For regular exercise to become part of children’s routines, it has to be enjoyable; an activity that is looked forward to. If it’s too painful or difficult, most will turn away from it. A positive, experiential approach to physical education, what we call ‘active learning’, engages and motivates young people.

To become the norm, exercise must be fun

The younger children are, the easier it is to repair ‘damage’. But positive habits can be taught and instilled at any age.

We’ve noticed a rise in obesity amongst the 14-16 year olds that our Schools cater for, and from my experience these young people usually come from families where obesity is the norm. Positive lifestyle reference points are sadly often in short demand, so to compensate we’ve had to adapt our approach to include a heightened focus on aerobic training and nutrition.

By intervening, we’ve seen positive change happen time and again. This isn’t just limited to the young people we teach directly; good lifestyle changes often also radiate out to their families. Our learners go home, exhibiting the benefits of healthy living, and for some families this fresh perspective makes a very profound impact.

Physical education should encourage young people to succeed, rather than fail. We ask learners to strive achieve their personal best in physical tasks, but not to compete against others – in fact, our strongest learners are encouraged to help and support our weakest. Above all, we look to make physical activity fun, and a highlight of the day – not something to suffer through. To make exercise a long-lasting habit, the education sector must recognise the importance of this and adapt how it is taught.

Military Preparation Schools is an organisation committed to engaging young people and preparing them for training, further education and employment, equipping them for post-16 and higher education. The Schools network actively supports and complements all local school curricula.

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