School team sport `turns children into idle adults'

British Association
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The Independent Online

Science Editor

Encouraging competitive sport in schools is wrong and risks turning children into adult couch potatoes, a former Newcastle United footballer told the British Association yesterday.

Schools should offer swimming, aerobics and dance as well as competitive team games, Professor Neil Armstrong, of Exeter University, said.

The Government's emphasis on team games was putting girls off sport, he continued: "The national curriculum discriminates against girls and promotes inactive lifestyles."

Today's young people are "the most sedentary generation of children we've ever had," he warned. In a study of 743 children aged 10 to 16, whose activity levels were monitored continuously for four days at a time, Professor Armstrong found that nearly half the girls and 38 per cent of the boys "did not even experience the equivalent of a 10-minute brisk walk".

"All studies show that active children are likely to become active adults," he said. Today's children were not less fit than previous generations but that was because "they haven't been around long enough ... The problems will be in adult life".

John Major, the Prime Minister, told the Tory party conference last year the national curriculum would "put competitive games back at the heart of school life. More time must be devoted to team games".

Professor Armstrong stressed that, as a former professional footballer, he was not anti-team games, but warned that the Government had got the balance wrong. "We want children to adopt an active lifestyle which will be sustained when they move into adulthood," he said, and team games were not the way to achieve that.

In many schools the PE curriculum for girls was dominated by netball and hockey, yet these were not activities which could be sustained after the girls left school nor was it what they did out of school hours: if they were physically active at all they would find a partner for badminton, or go swimming or even enrol in an aerobics class.

Boys entering secondary school tend to have an aerobic fitness level about 18 per cent greater than girls (as measured by peak oxygen consumption during exercise). But the difference in their fitness increases with age, so that boys are on average about 37 per cent fitter by the end of compulsory secondary schooling than girls.

"We have to get across the message that exercise and physical activity can be fun," Professor Armstrong said. Getting girls to take more exercise was vital because the most important role model for children was their mother, so if today's girls were directed into a sedentary lifestyle it would set the model for their own children.

For boys, competitive sport was not doing much more than favouring those who matured early and were stronger and taller, he said.