We all want our children to have a healthy start in life. Nowhere is this more important than with a healthy attitude to being active. The habits we learn as children stay with us all the way through our lives - meaning an active child is more likely to grow into an active adult, who will live a longer, happier and healthier life.
I recently took up the mantle as chair of ukactive, the leading not-for-profit representative body for physical activity in all its forms in the UK. Around the same time we launched a new wing of our organisation, ukactive kids - focused with getting more children, more active, more often.
Our most recent report, 'Generation Inactive', has found a worrying lack of tracking and measurement of children's physical activity and fitness in primary schools, and examines different ways we can encourage 'the least active generation in history' to become more fit and active. We can't continue to focus on the size of their waists when it is the health of their hearts that is most important.
What do we know about children's inactivity in the UK?
As a mother and a parliamentarian who has worked closely with the children's activity agenda in the UK, I know all too well that children are surrounded by technology and entertainment that can engage them for hours without them moving from their seat. Such inactive lifestyle choices are lending themselves to what Lord Sebastian Coe has dubbed 'the least active generation in history'.
Only half of seven-year-olds today meet the 60 minutes of daily physical activity recommended by the Chief Medical Officer, and nearly a third of adults failing to do at least half an hour's moderate physical activity a week.
With an already squeezed NHS and inactivity costing the UK economy £20billion per year, it is essential that we act to stop the sedentary practices of today's young people continuing into adulthood. Children need to be engaged in being active from a young age, with physical activity throughout the day becoming normal and increasing the likelihood of them remaining active as they get older.
How can we change the status quo?
We need to make sure every child at school participates in physical activity - even those who traditionally were not confident enough to engage in PE lessons or competitive sport. A 'whole day approach' would help get children active before, during and after school, and offer fun and safe physical activities to take part in during lessons.
Children's fitness levels should also be measured together with the height and weight measurement that takes place through the National Child Measurement programme, as it is only by knowing how fit our children are that we can adequately support those whose health may be at risk later down the line.
ukactive Kids passionately believes that developing an active lifestyle should be just as important as learning English, Maths and Science, as it is an essential component of their development and their mental and physical wellbeing. We measure how our children are progressing in core subjects like English and Maths, but there is very little (if any) formal tracking of their fitness and activity levels. The current system is like measuring the performance of maths by assessing how many lessons are on the timetable, rather than the children's attainment and record. It's time to ensure no child is left behind, with support and engagement with child falling behind before they're turned off activity for life.
Physical activity is unfortunately all too often only thought about in terms of obesity - a dangerous misconception. Physical activity is a much better indicator for a child's fitness levels, and offers a host of benefits outside of weight management alone - physically active children can concentrate more and for longer, and even achieve more academically than their sedentary counterparts.
We are committed to getting more children, more active, more often. Developing an active lifestyle now not only offers immediate benefits to children's attainment and health, but allows them to live longer lives with fewer health problems as they age. It will take the committed action of a wide variety of organisations, but we are confident that with the support of government, academics, schools, parents and educational bodies, together we can halt the rise of generation inactive.