I’m no athlete. My overriding memories of PE (physical education) at school are of freezing northern English weather pricking through my thin uniform, scampering up and down the netball pitch while a perpetually short-tempered coach barked indecipherable orders at me. I could never run fast enough, pivot with enough agility, throw the ball far enough or even catch it. It was painful, humiliating, and pointless.
Tackling rising obesity rates, especially in young people, has been a challenge for governments on both sides of the Atlantic for decades. British children have one of the highest obesity rates in the world, with one in five Year 6 children (aged 10-11) being classed as obese in 2018/19.
Spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the British government has announced a new campaign to encourage the public to loose weight and live more healthily. Clinical evidence indicates that obesity is associated with a greater risk of death from COVID-19, along with a whole host of other conditions. The new BETTER HEALTH campaign encourages people to lose weight by engaging in more frequent and rigorous physical activity, along with meal planning and eating a healthier diet. While the plan includes some measures to tackle the socio-economic factors associated with obesity by restricting the advertising of junk food, it does not fully address many of the complicated factors associated with obesity. One of these factors is why so few British people engage in regular exercise.
In Britain, it is compulsory that students from the age of 4-16 engage in two hours of physical activity a week. This tends to consist of timetabled lessons within school hours with supplemental clubs during lunch breaks or after school. Most of these lessons consist of instruction in a competitive sport like football, netball, basketball or hockey. While for some students, these lessons make up their favourite hours of the school week, others dread them. There is some evidence that bad experiences with exercise at school may discourage students, especially girls, from exercising regularly.
A 2012 study from the University of Loughborough asked school-age girls for their perspective on sports and PE. While some of the reasons they cited were centred around worries about whether exercising (and the sweat it produces), others were complaints over how school sports are conductive. A worrying 51% of girls felt that school PE put them off exercise all together.
PE classes almost invariably consist of competitive team sports like football, hockey or lacrosse. 45% of girls surveyed took issue with this. Schools are already a competitive environment, and while some students will use the opportunity to let off steam, for others it will be another stressor. For students who are being bullied, the sports pitch presents a new opportunity to be on the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse. Students who are less fit or adept at sport can develop a sense of humiliation, and form lifelong associations between sport and discomfort. The fast pace of competitive sports also creates problems for disabled students: those with physical disabilities may not be able to participate, and those with invisible disabilities like autism may find the situation overwhelming.
Playing in a team can have certain benefits, like developing communication skills and teamwork. However, they may do little to actually encourage physical activity and develop fitness. A 2006 study from Cornell University, observing 36,000 high schoolers, found that in an hour-long PE class, students were only active for a total of 16 minutes. If the government and health authorities want to use PE to engender better health and a produce lifelong habits of exercising, then we need to rethink the way we teach sport in schools.
The solution? Offer students a measure of choice in how they spend their PE lessons. This would allow students who enjoyed team sports to continue their training, but would allow students for whom competitive team sports are not their cup of tea to get some exercise. An hour of focused exercise with an emphasis on having fun while moving (through aerobics, for example), instead of repetitive drills learning how to manoeuvre a hockey ball, may create positive associations between exercise and happiness. It would also alleviate some of the pressure placed on students to perform technically in PE, when they are already expected to perform in their academic classes.
Unfortunately, many schools may not have the capacity to provide a greater choice in athletic activities due to shortages of staff, finances and a lack of facilities. But that only underscores the need for schools to be well-supported in order to cater for the wellbeing of their students. Young people want to be active: they want to stay fit and healthy; they want to have fun. Giving young people greater agency to choose how they exercise is the surest way to make sure young people develop a lifelong association between exercise, and physical and mental wellbeing.