The great debate over academic standards, parental control, and freedom of choice looks about to be overshadowed by startling evidence that children are not getting enough basic physical exercise at school to ward off heart disease in adult life.
With schools reporting a sharp downturn in competitive sports and some teenagers in England and Wales now being given PE as an option, research centered in the West Country is uncovering the lack of physical education and its long-term implications. And next month a Government-sponsored report, the School Sport Forum, produced under the auspices of the Sports Council, is likely to call for a radical re-think.
Mr. Neil Armstrong, chairman of PE at Exeter University and director of the Coronary Prevention in Children Project, which is working on a three-year project with Exeter Health Authority, has found that school children are “nowhere near active enough to promote cardio-vascular health”.
Armstrong’s team is the first in Europe to carry out continuous heart-rate monitoring of individual children. Although the study has still to run its course, enough data has been analyzed to show that the childrens’ heart rate does not exceed frequently enough or for long enough that required to bring about what is called a “training effect”.
Internationally recognized standards set by the American College of Sports Medicine to measure fitness in adults (nobody has yet devised a standard for children) recommends three sessions of exercise a week to raise the heart rate for a period of 20 minutes.
Armstrong’s study is being carried out in two communities in the South West, one of which mirrors the Registrar General’s Profile of the UK. It involves 600 children aged from 11 to 16. The first results have come from the 11 to 14 age groups. Armstrong hopes to complete his research this term and publish his findings later this summer.
Results from the standard laboratory tests were as researchers would have predicted. According to their genetic endowment some children did very well, others not so well.
But the shock came when electrodes were strapped to childrens’ chests which transmitted to a receiver worn on the wrist like a watch. The children were free to carry on as normal while they were monitored for 12-hour periods on four week days and one day at the weekend. Less than one in 20 of the children were active enough to achieve the “training effect”.
The main activity for the majority was watching television an average of 2 1/2 hours a day. And girls lagged behind even the less active boys. But children who cycled to school and played football in the evening did achieve acceptable levels of exercise.
Armstrong has no doubt that the remedy lies in a radical re-think in school physical education. “Three quarters of PE lesson time is still spent on traditional team games. What we have to do is to teach children activities which will persist in adult life.”
The Council of Europe have accepted a Eurofit Project and one of the British representatives is Bill Tuxworth, a lecturer in exercise physiology at Birmingham University. He is not surprised by Armstrong’s findings.
“Private schools tend to play sport on several afternoons a week. Yet the average child in State schools gets just one hour a week, 40 weeks a year. In primary schools it’s often taught by someone with no expertise in PE.”
Liz Murdoch, head of PE at Brighton Polytechnic, whose desk study forms the basis of the Forum report, is concerned that many teachers and parents still think of fitness only in terms of traditional PE lessons. “The ILEA working party recommended one vigorous session of exercise for 20 minutes each day for school children. This can be achieved during a PE lesson or through some other activity.” Armstrong agrees and suggests running, swimming, skiing, skating, cycling and even disco-dancing (“a beautiful exercise, provided it’s not done in a heavy, smokey atmosphere.”)
Tuxworth defends the PE professionals. The community as a whole and especially parents must share responsibility for childrens’ health, he says. “It may seem a reactionary, elderly view, but television has a lot to answer for.”
Another expert, Doctor Martin Farrally, director of physical education at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is optimistic. “We are at last awakening to the fact that there is a problem.” But he also sounds a note of caution. All the estimates of childrens’ fitness are based on adult measurement. “We know that children need to be stretched, but not by how much.”
Even if everyone involved accepts the argument, there is still a major dilemma, Liz Murdoch says. “It simply isn’t safe for parents to allow their children to play as freely as we would all like. There are not enough safe play areas available.”
The Scottish Experiment
An experiment to improve children’s fitness in the Linwood area of Strathclyde, Scotland, was started in the early 1980s in one class of 10-year-olds at a primary school. Based on a daily half-hour of fitness activities, the program was designed to have as many different activities as possible taught by specialists and the children’s own class teacher.
The results were spectacular. There seemed to be an improvement in the arithmetic skills of children on the scheme and there was an improved attitude to school itself. Children due to transfer from primary to secondary did not suffer any falling off of performance as is usually the case. Girls benefitted particularly. They were fitter than boys on the normal PE program. Another finding was that after the summer holidays children on ordinary PE programs were fitter than they were at the end of the school year. In other words school PE was not even maintaining their normal fitness level.
Dr. John Pollatschek, a lecturer at Jordanhill College, Glasgow, who organized the experiment, said that it had now been adopted by more than 100 schools in the area. On the question of cost, he commented: “Compared to the cost of treating a patient with heart disease, it is not high.” He believes that catching children young enough is the key. “If children have daily PE from the start of primary until the end of the second year of secondary school then there is not much more you can do. If it has not become part of their lifestyle after nine years of it every day, then it never will.”