THE great outdoors is not always what it’s cracked up to be. The idea that children can play outside with the freedom of the Famous Five in an idyllic Enid Blyton landscape belongs, sadly, to the pages of fiction. On the other hand, the suggestion that the only exercise children get in an urban setting is running away from knife-wielding gangs is equally fanciful. The commonest experience for children is that the outdoors is simply dull. In England, only one boy in five, 22 per cent, takes the recommended one hour a day of physical activity. The figure for girls is worse: only 15 per cent. Such results place England and Wales near the bottom in rankings prepared by the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance, released last week. The survey noted such elements as organised participation, active play, and means of transport. England and Wales both scored D-minus overall, below Slovenia, New Zealand, and even Mexico. Scotland did worse, receiving an F, the lowest mark available. For a nation that came second in the medal table in the Olympic Games this year, this is doubly shocking.
The Government’s policy of funding elite sport had merit: children are inspired to emulate their sporting heroes, which is why the moral standard set for top sportsmen and -women, such as Wayne Rooney, has become so high, perhaps unrealistically so. But the whittling away of the so-called “legacy” funding, designed to equip and enable young people to take part in sport, means that the gap between aspiring children and their heroes has merely widened. Sport has become something to watch, not something to do.
The situation will not be solved by wresting mobile phones and games consoles out of children’s hands and turning them out into the nearest park, even where it is considered a safe place. Childhood obesity is now so widespread that it has become a chief inhibitor of exercise. Overweight children fear being exposed to ridicule, and are thus turned off sport at school, even if they would like to join in. And since obesity is commonest in lower-income families, health is increasingly the privilege of the well-off. The solution of taking out-of-condition children to a gym, where a structured programme of exercise would improve their health in a safe and positive environment, is closed. Now a new breed of hero is emerging: gamers on YouTube who sit at home and earn fortunes without ever leaving their chairs.
Schools remain the lifeline — perhaps literally. Independent schools, even the most academic, routinely upgrade their sports facilities. But those without such a budget struggle to provide the individual training needed to help those who need exercise the most. An encouraging initiative, the Daily Mile, begun by St Ninian’s Primary School in Stirling, and now springing up all over the UK, is working as a preventative measure. But in general, more investment is needed. It is far better that the Government should spend its money helping to build healthy bodies than pick up the bill for repairing them later in life.