Johann Hari: A new kind of PE could cure childhood obesity

Fat children will never want to learn physical fitness alongside healthy sports-kids
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The Independent Online

"All four corners of the gym - go!" Even now, those words make me feel breathless, humiliated and very slightly nauseous. This weekend, it was revealed childhood obesity is so chronic in Britain that the Government is going to weigh all four-year-olds to pick up the warning flab, but the proposed solutions have been weirdly one-sided. Parents of dangerously overweight children will be told to change their diet, and schools are being given instructions to serve less grease and more greens. These are, of course, smart ideas - my own junk food addiction kicked in at school dinners - but they are only a small part of the fat-story.

The way we teach Physical Education is a disaster, and an obstacle to stemming the rise of porker-kids who will develop diabetes in their thirties. Children growing up in our sedentary, fat-saturated culture desperately need to be taught about their bodies, and to be equipped with basic fitness skills they can keep using into adulthood.

Does anybody think PE does that? It had the opposite effect on me, putting me off exercise for decades. As it is currently taught, PE works brilliantly for the children who don't need it - the ones who love sports and play them anyway - and it totally fails the kids who need it most, the fat and unhealthy ones.

As you can probably tell from my by-line picture, I have less than no aptitude for competitive sports. All I learnt from PE lessons was that exercise is humiliating and excruciatingly dull. The stand-up comedian Alan Carr compares the process of picking out teams for sports to ethnic cleansing, with the weakest and fattest left waiting in a straggling queue watching their friends disappear one by one. Imagine if English lessons were structured like this, primed to disgrace the illiterate, with the whole class actively encouraged to mock the kids who couldn't read properly.

I quickly developed the tactic of running shrieking from any on-coming ball, and spent the lessons longing to escape the grinding tedium so I could sit in the changing room moodily reading Dostoyevsky. (I was usually quite good at being sent off, and today I still can't pick up Crime and Punishment without smelling sweaty socks).

It is only in the last few months that I have learnt the things that I should have picked up at school: that exercise can actually be an enjoyable process. I had been channel-surfing when I stumbled across a programme featuring a person who looked like an incredibly fat Johann Hari impersonator. He had my mannerisms, my suit, my voice - and just as I was about to call a friend to remark upon this hilarity, I realised the person was, in fact, me.

I sweatily booked an appointment with a personal trainer (the amazing Michael Garry at the Connaught Hotel) the next day, and it has been a treadmill road to Damascus. Michael taught me about my internal organs, my Body Mass Index, simple exercises and easy short cuts away from a quadruple chin. It would not be hard to teach the same lessons to children, who are far more body-conscious now than they were two decades ago when I was at primary school.

My eight-year-old nephew is constantly asking about diets and demanding to know what you need to do to get a six-pack, when the only six-pack I knew about at his age was of full-sugar Coke. Modern kids have a ravenous hunger to learn about their bodies and how to control them.

How could this be done? The first step is to stream, stream, stream. If you can stream kids for maths, why not for PE? Fat children will never want to learn physical fitness alongside super-healthy sports-kids; they will simply dread, avoid or shut down in the lessons. Once you have separated out the children according to their needs, the already-healthy children can spend their lessons playing football or rounders or rugby as much as they like to maintain their fitness levels, with a few potted lessons about nutrition and healthy eating thrown in.

But for the overweight children, PE as it exists now - taught largely by the least-qualified and least intelligent teachers - should be scrapped in favour of Health lessons. These children should be taught about the long-term health dangers of over-eating, the various food groups (I left school totally unable to tell a carb from a crab) and how they affect your body, how to cook healthy foods (my parents had no idea) and some basic, non-competitive exercises they can perform in private every day.

Or should another generation of kids have to wait two decades, gain five stone and fork out their own cash to learn how to keep fit? All we are teaching fat children today is to head to all four corners of McDonald's for some comfort food.