The more exercise youngsters take, the happier they feel

Major blueprint aims to reverse the trend.
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The Independent Online
Sporty teenagers are happier than those who are less physically active, according to a study in today's Lancet.

The finding is based on a survey of more than 5,000 14 to 16-year-olds which revealed that those who played sport were happier regardless of sex, social class or health status.

But such is the state of school sport, that if teenagers were to rely on educational establishments for their needs, Britain would be breeding a generation of manic depressives.

That may be about to change, however. In a few weeks' time John Major will reveal part two of his blueprint for promoting school sports It comes a year after he announced the initiative, which includes a pounds 100m Academy of Sport, the promotion of competitive team games and a compulsory two hours of sport a week.

Mr Major is not alone in his "commitment" to sport; all political parties are now stressing their gym-kitted credentials. Yet the last 15 years have seen an unprecedented decline in school provision, and levels of fitness in young people.

On average, pupils aged 14-16 now have 91 minutes of games and PE a week compared with 128 minutes eight years ago. Three-quarters have less than the two-hour minimum recommended by the Conference of Medical Royal Colleges. And surveys suggest that pupils do not care. Many claim to be bored by traditional games and are happier rollerblading or watching basketball on Channel 4.

The decline of PE can be traced back to the early 1980s. with the Government's introduction in 1982 of Circular 909 which allowed local authorities to sell school playing fields. At least 5,000 have since been sold off to developers, with a further 2,000 reportedly in the pipeline.

Another was the decision of some left-wing councils to discourage competitive sports, on the grounds that it made the less able players feel like failures. The commitment to team sport can be seen as something of a backlash against the politically correct non-competitive sports they encouraged.

The teachers' strike of the mid-Eighties transformed the position of after-school sport; when teachers were forced to accept contracts of 1,265 hours a year, many reacted by working only the stipulated hours.

And in 1988, the Education Reform Act meant that teachers had to spend evenings and weekends keeping up with changes in the national curriculum, leaving them unable to take part in extra curricular sporting activities. For these reasons, many are sceptical of the "new commitment".

Last December, the National Association of Head Teachers said it could not support the Prime Minister's proposals because they were limited by academic and funding pressures and by staff and pupils who dislike team games.

And the children themselves have changed. The decline of school sports has corresponded with increasing encroachments on their freedom. Where 25 years ago they would walk to school, most are now ferried in cars. Fears over safety mean that they do not play in parks in their spare time, and as a result many favour sedentary pursuits such as television or computer games.

The results are alarming. In 1990, the results of a five-year study into children's fitness at the University of Exeter found that 48 per cent of girls and 41 per cent of boys already exceeded safe cholesterol levels. It also found that 13 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls were overweight.

Nigel Hook, deputy general secretary of the Central Council for Physical Recreation, is all for an increased commitment to school sport. The benefits, he said, are manifold. "It's the old adage about playing together and teamwork. Meeting success and failure with equilibrium. Learning to work with their friends and team members. For all the resources you put into sport, you get the benefits back. But there's got to be sufficient resources to make it work."

The sports children like to play

BOYS

Football 78%

Swimming 40%

Basketball 39%

Rugby 6%

Athletics 33%

Cricket 28%

Rounders 27%

Tennis 21%

Badminton 21%

Hockey 18%

Netball 8%

GIRLS

Netball 53%

Swimming 50%

Rounders 36%

Gymnastics 29%

Athletics 28%

Tennis 23%

Football 23%

Basketball 23%

Hockey 22%

Badminton 19%

Rugby 7%

32% of girls are not offered football at their school

1 in 15 8-10 year old boys are not offered football at school

Basketball is now played in 6 out of 10 schools

Roller-skating is available in 6% of schools

Cricket is played in only 50% of schools

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