Lessons in fighting the flab

Children have never been fatter or unhealthier. The answer, according to some experts, is to get them off their backsides and into the gym. Hilary Wilce reports on a scheme linking schools with leisure centres
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The children of St Joseph's Catholic Primary School, in Kingston, are doing a new exercise programme at their local leisure centre. Their head teacher, Merryl Roberson, knows it is working because they've only been doing it for three weeks and already they can walk over to the centre from the school without getting out of breath. So how long is the walk they have to do? She considers. "Oh, I'd say about seven or eight minutes."

The fitness levels of today's children are truly shocking. Much has been written about childhood obesity, and it is clear that worrying numbers of schoolchildren are getting tubbier by the day. But the real health-timebomb ticking away in the classroom is the fact that even the skinniest kids are seriously out of condition.

The children of St Joseph's are in no worse state than any others, and maybe better than many, but they often struggle to do the kind of everyday physical activities that yesterday's children did without a second thought.

And this, according to childhood fitness experts such as Neil Armstrong, a professor of paediatric physiology at Exeter University, is the nub of things.

Because the really big problem about children's fitness is not just that they eat junk food, and don't get enough sessions of school PE, but that their moment-to-moment lives have become so sedentary and lacking in activity.

This is one reason why the Fitness Industry Association (FIA) is now working to link leisure centres with schools. It hopes that its programmes will not only make children fitter in the short term, but also make them see that regular exercise can be fun, rewarding, and part of their whole way of life.

For the past two-and-a-half years it has been running its Adopt-a-School programme for 10- and 11-year-old primary-school pupils, and has so far paired 300 schools with local health clubs and leisure centres. It sees it as a win-win programme, with children getting opportunities to exercise, and health clubs and leisure centres attracting a new generation of members. And, while children's health is always a complex issue, the programme seems to be working. "We are looking at the first generation of children who may have a lower life-expectancy than their parents and we know that 10 and 11 is the age when children form their ideas about exercise, which is why we started this," says the FIA's chief executive, Andrée Deane. "The programme is being evaluated by Loughborough University, and we already know that after six months, 60 per cent of the children are still physically active, eating more healthily and feel inspired to try new activities."

The children at the Kingfisher Leisure Centre in Kingston, which is run by DC Leisure Management, explain why. Stephen Twizere, who is 11, is pouring with sweat after half an hour in the gym. "I like the bikes and I like the treadmill," he says. "I'm losing weight and I can go for longer on things without getting tired. And we do lots of different stuff. Last week we did yoga and meditation as well. It was good. I like everything that we do."

"It's really just fun," says Holly Barnes, 11, who is pedalling like fury on an exercise bike. "Look - my heart rate's up to 145!"

Fitness instructor Gareth Evans, who is moving around the gym answering constant questions, is clearly enjoying it, too. "They want to know so much stuff, but it's much better for us than just sitting here with nothing to do."

The association helps the centres with a pack of suggested activities and music for six weeks - the programme is designed to fit into a school's half-term period - although when St Joseph's adopted the scheme last year, it proved so popular that the school continued it for longer.

Enthusiastic young instructors and the ambience of a fitness club clearly capture young imaginations. While half of the 28 year-sixes on this year's Kingston programme work away in the gym, the other half are upstairs doing a work-out in a mirrored studio, with the 26-year-old Bozena Janackova, otherwise known as BJ. She is firm, but fun, and quickly has even the most recalcitrant children dancing along to the music with broad grins on their faces.

"Last year I had to be really strict with them at the start, but I'm also a nursery teacher so it was not a problem," she says.

The Kingston programme was put together by a former leisure centre boss, Fiona Nugent, and Roberson, who are both passionate about the importance of exercise for children. Nugent, who is now the leisure-partnership manager for Kingston, says: "We sat down together and really planned it. Also, from my point of view, you can only make the programme work if your staff are up for it. They all have to be higher-level instructors because of the safety angle. But my staff here are brilliant and we can all see how much the children get out of it.

"I give the children a big talking-to at the beginning and I tell them what a great opportunity it is for them to use all this exciting fitness equipment, and how much it costs adults to come here, and how many different things they will get to do, from swimming to going on the bouncy castle. They also get a free swimming voucher, and last half-term I noticed quite a few from the group coming along of their own accord, either with their friends, or their parents. They have a real sense of ownership. I heard one little boy say, 'OK, Dad, this is where we go now'".

"It is excellent," says Roberson, who works out regularly. "You can see every child sweating, and you don't see children sweating very often any more! We give children two hours of exercise a week at school, but children generally are not getting enough opportunities to exercise over prolonged periods of time and this allows them to exercise in a different way.

"The group last year loved it. They got the special T-shirts, and they felt very special doing it, and they could really see a difference. They understood that this was the sort of thing that footballers do in their training, and it raised their awareness of the importance of regular, sustained activity."

Adopt-A-School has been refined since it started to give the leisure clubs who took it up more structure and guidance.

"We have a lot more emphasis on sustainability than when we started," says the programme manager, Fiona Bothwell. "It's no good offering it for just a day. You now have to do it for a minimum of six weeks."

The lessons learned are being taken on into a new FIA programme for 15- and 16-year-old girls. Called Go, it is offering the same mix of circuits, dance, gym and aerobics to a target group which is particularly prone to giving up on exercise. Tonbridge Grammar School, in Kent, is one of the first schools to take it up.

"The first week the girls really enjoyed it," says Suzanne Hill, a PE teacher. "They did jazz-ercise and had the option of using the gym and they were quite buzzy afterwards. Lots of them have a good body-shape, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're fit!"

This week the girls are doing specially adapted circuits in a room with flashing lights and pounding music to spur them on. "It helps having an instructor," says Elizabeth Drappe, 15. "It keeps you going. You don't give up halfway through."

Alice Kendall, also 15, says that she is not that sporty. "But this is a bit more interesting than school sport. You get to do a bigger range of things."

The leisure centre is enthusiastic too. Sarah Thomas, the operations manager of the Angel Leisure Centre in Tonbridge, says: "We were keen to become involved, and I look at it from the point of view of getting future members."

The Tonbridge school is one of 35 piloting the programme, which goes national in the new year. The association has been given funds by the Department for Education and Skills as well as Sport England for its work with schools. It is aiming for 500 institutions in the Adopt-a-School programme by Spring of 2008, and 250 in the programme for teenage girls. It is also hoping to develop travelling fitness programmes for groups unable to find the time or money to get to a leisure centre.

However, studies suggest that tackling children's fitness is about more than PE. Researchers in Glasgow, who worked with 500 four-year-olds, found that more physical exercise alone cannot prevent children becoming overweight. Their findings, in the British Medical Journal this month, suggest that dietary changes are also necessary.

Shocking health facts

* More than 13 per cent of under-11s in England are obese, up from 9.6 per cent in 1995

* The Department of Health estimates that one million children will be obese by 2010

* The number of children developing type-two diabetes has risen 10-fold in the past five years, from 10 new cases a year to 100

* UK children drink five litres of cooking oil a day with their pack-a-day crisp habit, according to the British Heart Foundation

* Children who watch more than two hours of television a day at the weekend risk becoming obese adults, according to researchers at University College London's Institute of Child Health

* Children spend on average 9.4 hours a week playing computer games and watching television, according to 3,500 children surveyed by Tesco

* The problem is across the developed world: 38 per cent of children in the EU, and 50 per cent of children in North and South America will be obese by 2010, according to the International Journal of Paediatric Obesity