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Is physical activity Available to all Children?

“We need action to ensure that physical activity and the great outdoors are accessible to all children and not just the privileged few”. Says Stephen Morrison, Lay Adviser to the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK.

According to a recently published survey comparing children in 15 countries, Scottish children were deemed to be the least active while those in England fared only slightly better.

In two categories, one ranking physical activity and the other on screen-based leisure time, Scotland came bottom, ranked F in both. This is despite scoring a B in the category for community and built environment, which includes the avail­ability of our parks and recreational grounds.

Scotland, England and Wales have vast areas of resplendent beauty that people can walk, run, swim, ski and bike in. We have an abundance of sports centres and armies of volunteers supporting local community groups and teams. In the survey, there were also high scores for active schools in England and for strategic planning in Scotland with active travel to schools also scoring favourably. The will and desire to keep our children active is there. Why then, are our children so inactive? Why then, do they spend an unhealthy amount of time in front of a screen when they could be outside?

Or do they?

In response to this survey, an article in one of Scotland’s national newspapers highlighted the active lives of three children and challenged the survey’s results. These children seem to relish the outdoors, they dedicate hours to honing their athletic abilities and they are great role models for both children and adults alike. I wondered briefly if our fears were unfounded. Then, I started to note the similarities between the children depicted.

The surfing, skiing, mountain biking and gymnast children all came from affluent areas of Scotland and they all had supportive and professional parents. My response to this article is not intended to incite class war nor does it diminish the achievements or dedication of the children, but I do feel that the feature illustrated and reinforced the notion that physical inactivity and obesity are often linked to social inequalities. Higher proportions of income in poorer areas are spent on food rather than on sporting and recreational activities. Activities such as skiing, snowboarding and many water sports are often financially out of reach for a large proportion of society. Even relatively inexpensive sports such as running are dominated by the middle classes. You only need to attend a timed run in your local park to note the alarming lack of diversity. Is poor weather more of a deterrent when you don’t have adequate clothing or equipment and are certain activities marketed and perceived as elitist?

One child in the article pondered why his peers didn’t spend more time in the great outdoors. Research by Pagani and Huot, determined that in less affluent areas, more time is spent indoors and that children, in these areas, are less inclined to go out because their streets are neither perceived as safe nor welcoming. I recall my own childhood in a Glasgow housing estate and I remember being chased by rival gangs of kids, having bottles thrown at me and being deterred (not always) by neighbours enforcing “No Ball” signs. I also recall other reasons I didn’t go out. My mum was a lone parent, even when my father was around. While she went out working and he was drinking, I looked after my brother. Only once did I succumb to my desire to go out and play. My father’s fury and my own guilt ensured no repeat outings. How many of our children are fending for themselves or providing support to siblings and even occasionally parents? How can we enable these kids to utilise our high scoring facilities or consider having fun in our parks with their friends?

I no longer drink alcohol partly because I witnessed and experienced the damage caused by it and I still bear the scars both physically and emotionally. However, many children adopt the unhealthy lifestyles of their parents. Parents who are healthy and lead active lives tend to have healthy and active offspring. Nature and nurture. With many parents having to work long hours or rely on low incomes, choices have to be made.  Sacrifices have to be made.  In Scottish schools we have attempted to address these concerns by producing fantastic health and homework books for children that encourage them to rate their daily key targets of eating healthily, sleeping, brushing teeth and being active. While I applaud the initiative, I fear that without parental support, these, along with the lessons learned, are discarded and soon forgotten. How can we address both adult and child behaviours and encourage both to adopt healthier and more active lifestyles?

The main challenge that we face is how do we reach and connect with those in most need? Those that do not use our parks or our sports centre or who have little hope and even less support. To engage with those that feel disenfranchised and disconnected from society and those that also believe they are marginalised by governments, newspapers, magazines and advertisers. These are the children that lie at the heart of our inactivity pandemic. It’s all very well having great strategic plans and beautiful parks, but we need action to ensure that physical activity and the great outdoors are accessible to all children and not just the privileged few.

Follow Stephen on Twitter @HowManyMiles_

Stephen Morrison is Lay Adviser to the FSEM (UK) and works for the Department for Work and Pensions. He is an everyday Physical Activity Champion for HASSRA Scotland, a Fitness Day UK Ambassador, and Jamie Oliver Food Revolution Ambassador. Having turned his life and health around with exercise, Stephen’s agenda is to raise awareness of health inequalities and push for a more holistic approach to inactivity within community wide programmes. Stephen also champions the management of obesity with physical activity, the issues surrounding this in the public domain and a call for “a different approach”. Stephen is also a columnist for Man v Fat and charts his journey as a try athlete at http://howmanymiles.co.uk/

Written by Stephen Morrison