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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Dowson

Can we help to ‘fight’ the obesity epidemic in PE?

With an every increasing number of children leaving Primary School overweight or obese (39.9%, see below for reference), someone posted in a Facebook group for PE staff, asking what we could do about it in PE and here are my thoughts.

‘You can never outrun a bad diet’, is my starting point! For the majority of children, a poor diet - too high in calories, usually from excessive sugar and fat intake - is the major contributing factor in them being overweight or obese. Eating away from school is something we cannot control, however, by educating and advising students we can make some impact on this. This should not just be something that happens between a teacher and their class, but also, we should facilitate conversations between children and their parents, as well as helping to send home information or share on school social media sites the importance of good nutrition. However, until the government start sorting out food pricing, particularly sweets, chocolate etc. there isn’t too much going to change. Go into most shops that sell chocolate and you can pick up a 4 bar chocolate bar pack for £1, yet is costs approximately 75p for one bar! Moving away from the food aspect, the massive thing we can do is improve their physical literacy so they have the skills, confidence and competence to join an extra-curricular club, school or local sports team if they want to. We need to maximise time they spend in PE lessons, let them come in to school in their PE kits or somehow reduce the time lost in lessons due to changing. There are reports that PE is to be turned in to a compulsory subject, this will help… especially if a whole school Ofsted ratings were impacted on the quality of PE and the level of attainment reached by pupils. By being a compulsory subject it may stop schools allowing PE time to be taken away by Forest Schools, private music lessons, children being taken out of class to read and the many other reasons why my pupils aren’t always with me for a full lesson! We need to maximise the space available for PE. This includes yard or field space not being taken up by Forest Schools, having classrooms built on them, allowing trees to be plated or any other reasons that don’t positively impact on the amount of space children need to receive high quality PE lessons. We need to make sure school fields have good drainage so they can be used unless we have a monsoon! Hedges or trees around playing fields should be cut back so pupils don’t spend ages collecting balls that get hit or kicked in there, wasting their activity and learning time. We need to stop making Primary Schools halls a dumping or storage areas for stages, book cases, pianos, gym mats and anything else that reduces space and lessens you ability to teach high quality lessons. It is so refreshing to go in to a Primary School hall that is ‘empty’ so every available cm of space is available, but this is far from the norm! We must ensure Secondary School sports halls are always available and not used for exams, meaning lessons are cancelled when the weather isn’t great. One local school is even using one of their sports halls as a dining room, meaning the hall I book for some futsal coaching sessions is frequently cancelled as they now put exams on in that hall… An absolute travesty for the children at the school when they have 2 sports halls but they can’t even get full access to one of them when exams are on.

Is there a better activity to promote physical literacy than football?

Getting more children into football, especially in KS1 is a massive recommendation from me… In my 20+ years of teaching, I haven’t met many kids who play a school or club football team who haven’t liked PE, or even put it as their favourite subject. Which other sports improve every fitness component there is? For those of you unaware of the fitness components, stamina, speed, agility, balance, coordination, power and reaction time are some of the ones that playing football with help to develop. The ability to judge the flight of a ball is also a massive benefit of playing football and this helps in other ball sports, for example tennis, where footballers are usually better at judging the flight of a ball that has been hit to them, as well as better speed and agility to move to hit the ball back. It is so disappointing that some children I teach for the first time say that they “don’t like football”, due to the poor quality of teaching, lack of differentiation, poor choice of activities and other things that have led to them not enjoying lessons. Having high quality PE teaching in PE is a must for every child To prevent these types of issues. We also must ensure schools have enough equipment for teaching high quality PE. A football or basketball each for PE should be guaranteed. Imagine the progress that would be lost doing hand-writing practice if a child had to share a pencil or pen with another classmate?

Other activities on the curriculum have a place, but I am seeing too much Yoga, Joe Wicks workouts, Tri-golf, Just Dance, etc. and other activities that don’t offer the same level of fitness, skill and physical literacy development that will help children enjoy PE and sport, thus promoting a love of physical activity.

  • excellent athleticism (good speed, agility, balance, coordination, as well as the ability to dodge, stop and accelerate or decelerate rapidly)

  • good strength

  • high levels of stamina or cardiovascular endurance

  • the ability to throw, catch, kick or strike a ball

These and other things that determine whether a person has excellent physical literacy must all be developed if children will continue to play sports or be physically active throughout their teens and into adulthood. Please don’t analyse this blog and interpret that I only value ball sports, nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t care what activity or sport a child does, as long as it positively impacts on their health and fitness, as well as helping with the social and psychological benefits that can be aided by regular participation in sport or exercise. However, what I do believe is that 6-8 weeks of high quality basketball or football teaching will trump most other activities in the positive impacts on children‘s engagement in sport and PE. With England starting the European Championships so well this month, I hope that more girls take up football, as I truly believe that more girls will not become disaffected 15 and 16 year olds, which many PE teachers in Secondary Schools report are a major problem for them in their own schools.

Childhood obesity in England

14.4% of reception age children (age 4-5) are obese, with a further 13.3% overweight. At age 10-11 (year 6), 25.5% are obese and 15.4% overweight. This data is from 2020/21 and is gathered as part of the National Child Measurement Programme.

These figures show large increases on the previous year (2019/20), when 9.9% of children aged 4-5 and 21.0% of children aged 10-11 were obese.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020/21 collection was carried out as a sample and statistical weighting was applied to the data to produce a national estimate. Nevertheless, NHS Digital says that the results are “broadly comparable” to previous years.,are%20obese%20and%2015.4%25%20overweight.

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