"We need to create environments where physical activity is encouraged and the healthy food choice is the default choice, regardless of social group" said João Breda from the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week. He was commenting on the latest report on the growing obesity problems amongst schoolchildren in Europe, and levels of inactivity that suggest our present problems will only worsen.
The WHO report shows that England has as serious a problem with 35.4% of 10 to 11 year old boys and 32.4% of girls overweight. Among those, 20.7% of boys and 17.7% of girls were obese. The report also highlights that in 23 out of 36 European countries more than 30% of boys and girls aged 15 or over are not getting enough exercise and eating the wrong sorts of foods. Not good, especially when obesity costs us over £5billion a year.
Well thankfully the UK Government is taking a joined up approach to fighting such problems, or so I thought until I was out for a run and listening to a recent Marathon Talk podcast. I stopped dead in my tracks when I heard the hosts, Martin Yelling and Tom Williams, discussing new guidelines from the Department for Education that encouraged schools to punish kids with "extra physical activity such as running around a playing field".
A Google search later I was reading Jason Henderson's'Memo to Michael Gove' on the Athletics Weekly website and genuinely questioning what was happening within the Department for Education.
What's my problem with punishing kids by making them go for a run? As a father, school governor and keen runner, I passionately believe that it sends the wrong message that physical activity, in-particular running, is a negative action and not something to enjoy when it in fact helps build a healthy mind and body.
We all agree that there should be punishment within schools for ill-fitting behaviour, but it is staggering to include running as a sanction given the escalating obesity and mental health issues amongst children in this country, as well as the lack of participation in sports.
As a result, I decided to do something about it and penned a petition on the change.org website. A few tweets later to key figures within the running community and the petition was being spread widely via social media. Now with almost 9000 signatures, it continues to grow.
There had already been widespread derision for the guidance from many in sport and education before the petition. As reported by Athletics Weekly, Brendan Foster, a former teacher, world record-holder and creator of the Great North Run, said "It's a step back," and accused the Government of "demonising' running." He added, "for years we've told people running is enjoyable and beneficial to health. Now Mr Gove has sent a message it's bad - a punishment on a par with picking up litter or doing 100 lines."
Chrissie Wellington, the ironman triathlon legend, wrote on her website: "Using physical activity as a punishment is outdated and inappropriate. It will entrench lasting fear and loathing for sport amongst children and young people, running the risk that they will carry negative attitude to physical activity throughout their lives." She added: "Physical activity is a joy, a pleasure: something to be embraced and welcomed. We need the next generation to grow up wanting to be active. We need school staff, parents and children to view running around the school field (if they haven't been sold off) as a pleasure, rather than a punishment." Paula Radcliffe, summed things up perfectly by saying "It is totally ridiculous!"
Michael Gove might not know it yet, but he is in for a fight on this issue. The running community are an impressive bunch; eternally positive, and as good endurance athletes always can, willing to sustain a campaign it believes in.
If you also agree that Michael Gove needs to reverse this ill-thought through guideline, please sign the petition and encourage others to do so.
Joined up government means those in charge of health, sport, and education working together to tackle problems such as obesity, mental health issues and the lack of physical education in our schools. If the Government can't spot their mistake, it's up to us to highlight it until the right thing is done and the guideline removed. Let's keep this campaign running and make Michael Gove sweat.