Developing a lifelong love of being active

by Elaine McNish, Director of the British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health

The British Heart Foundation National Centre is passionate about creating an active nation and improving the nation’s health through physical activity and we recognise the role that schools have to contribute to the health agenda if they can create the right environment and opportunities for children to be active. We know that physical activity is vital for children’s physical and mental wellbeing and there is now increasing evidence that physical activity can impact directly on the brain, supporting the development of some of the executive functions such as impulse control and planning, which are vital for healthy behaviours.

I welcome the Youth Sport Trust’s Unlocking Potential: A manifesto for PE and school sport and the debate it encourages around schools and school sport. It is important that schools support the integration of physical activity into the whole school day so that children are provided with a menu of opportunities to be active at a variety of times. This could be lifestyle activities such as walking or cycling which can be engineered through ensuring the school environment is right, eg, bike racks or ensuring safe routes to schools by controlling traffic outside the gates. The environment is also vital to encourage active play and I have seen some magical playgrounds that encourage activity alongside school gardens and even woods. The classroom can also be engineered to be more active by using things such as standing desks or just taking away chairs for lab work.

We also need to recognise the role that more formal activities such as PE and sport contribute to the menu of opportunities. Again variety is important and these need to be activities that children like and want to do. Children are much more likely to engage in activities they feel they have had a say in. Ask them what they want, don’t make assumptions and expect the unexpected! Ideally we should look at activities that children can enjoy in the school day and that are also available in leisure time.

The school can also have a role in supporting leisure time activities. Schools are part of communities and need to be more than just a nine to five building; and there are some very good examples of schools opening up sites and forming relationships with local sports clubs and their local communities.

Children’s physical activity within schools is vital but I think we also need to think about how to engage them in an active lifestyle outside of school. Encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle extends wider than PE and the school gates. All teachers (not just PE teachers), parents, grandparents, coaches, youth workers and even peers are an important factor in nurturing this love of physical activity but we need to ensure that they are provided with the support they need to understand the importance of physical activity and the skills to inspire young people. Different skills are needed to support children who for whatever reason are turned off by sport to those who have a love of competitive sport, and so a variety of approaches may need to be considered.

We know that physical inactivity is damaging children’s longer term health. It is important to address this and important to start young, as we know that active children are much more likely to become active adults. We want to nurture a generation of confident, competent children who have a lifelong love of being active.

For more information on the work of the British Heart Foundation National Centre visit our website