Today I’m delighted to have Kate Long the author of “ Before She Was Mine”  which  is available on Amazon as my guest blogger today.

Kate is discussing the importance of exercise.

“Imagine you’re back at school, and on your way to a maths lesson. Although you appreciate maths is a vitally important life skill, it doesn’t stop you feeling sick with dread at the prospect. Because you know that when you get to class, the lesson’s going to be organised as it always is, in the form of a quiz. The class will be divided into two teams, captains picking their favourites one by one until, humiliatingly, you’re the last person left. Your classmates know you’re rubbish. You try your hardest to keep up with the work, the truth is you’ve always struggled with numbers, you just don’t have the natural ability. It’s intimidating to sit, week after week, in the same room as the kids who are destined for A* and even university degrees in the subject. In fact you’re getting so stressed that your marks are going down with every term.

You wish you could be allowed to go at a pace you could keep up with, work on a level that you can manage. But there’s no point complaining. This is just how maths is run. You know that when it’s your turn to answer a quiz question, the rest of your team will shout out in anguished voices, urging you to get it right, groaning and cat-calling when you don’t, accusing you of selfishly or stupidly letting the side down. The teacher won’t do anything to stop this; the competitive atmosphere actually seems to encourage it. If your team loses, there’s every chance your fellow students will blame you, perhaps keeping the jibes going for days afterwards. You wonder if there’s any way, any way at all, you can get out of this lesson.

Well, thank God maths isn’t taught like that in UK schools.

There’d rightly be an outcry if it was. Yet another key subject is, one we all need to lead a healthy adult life: PE. At the same time we’re continually being told by the media that our health is in crisis and that obesity rates are rising. Nowadays well below half of UK men meet the minimum recommendations for physical activity in adults, and it’s only just over a quarter for women. (1) Two and a half thousand people in Scotland die prematurely each year due to physical inactivity. (2) In Wales the average level of inactivity is amongst the highest in the UK. (3) Meanwhile the World Health Organisation says that lack of exercise is one of the leading causes of death in developed countries, linked with heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, strokes and breast cancer. (4) The cost of this in England alone – direct costs of treatment for lifestyle-related diseases, and the indirect costs through sickness absence – has been estimated at £8.2 billion a year. (5) The question needs to be asked therefore: if school PE in its current form is doing an effective job, how come so many adults are choosing to opt out of sport and exercise?

My theory is that a significant proportion are being turned off the subject because they associate it with failure and – more significantly –peer ridicule. Why do so many kids beg for notes off their parents, or feign sickness to get out of games lessons specifically? There are even discussions on the internet of ways to self-harm so as to avoid school PE. Some children are desperate enough to contemplate deliberately breaking bones. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that physical education policy is decided by those who love sport and have always been excellent at it. In other words, the successes, the folk who’ve never experienced being hissed and booed even as they changed into their kit. For this reason lessons tend to be aimed at students who are already good at games, and the attitude towards those at the bottom of the ability range has traditionally been, ‘Tough, get on with it.’ Which is OK as long as we’re happy to keep on producing hundreds of thousands of youngsters who leave school vowing never to go near a pitch or gym again.

The bald fact is, some people are poor at sports, and even with maximum effort they remain that way. However, I don’t think teachers always understand this. They spot a child performing in a lacklustre way and instantly assume that student just isn’t trying. The next moment, Teacher’s shouting from the sidelines, yelling and hectoring in a tone that’s only going to drain the student’s confidence further.

What is it schools want their pupils to get out of PE lessons?

 If the aim is simply to make bodies move about for an hour two or three times a week, then fine, leave things as they are. If, on the other hand, our education system’s aiming to instil good habits and an enjoyment of physical exertion, to lay the ground for a healthy adulthood and to cut into those rising obesity figures, then don’t we need to look at tailoring the classes to all pupils, not just the talented ones?

There may be some people reading this piece who shrug and say, ‘I had to go through games lessons I hated, why shouldn’t they?’ or ‘There’s always some aspect of school life you don’t like. You just have to suck it up.’ But that’s not a good enough argument when you look at what happens after kids leave school, the way the vast majority drop all forms of exercise for good.

 Adults are dying from diseases caused by physical inactivity.

The situation’s becoming critical. So what could schools do to improve matters? Essentially, I think the emphasis needs to be shifted off competitive sport for those who find PE difficult. Let the able pupils carry on playing team games; let’s continue to nurture their sporting talent and cheer on their hard work and determination. But at the same time, can’t we look at other ways less able kids can enjoy exercise, ways which don’t hinge on ‘letting other people down’? Circuit training, dance, athletics where you compete against your own time, swimming, trampolining, gymnastics: there are all kinds of areas where children can get a vigorous workout whilst focusing on their own individual achievements, free from the burden of peer disapproval. And pupils stand much more chance of improving their PE skills if they themselves are the ones doing the judging. If it’s just you in the field, there’s no one to hide behind, no one else to worry about.

Exercise is all-round brilliant. It keeps joints flexible, builds denser bones, maintains a healthy heart, lungs and digestive system. It can help control weight and ward off depression and find you new friends. The benefits can’t be overstated. And above all, it’s fun. I was in my forties before I realised this, before I learned to enjoy PE and to feel I had a right to join in with an exercise class. I’ve now been doing dance or circuits for over four years and I love it. But I had to overcome a very loud and negative script first. It’s very sad to read the health statistics and guess so many children are still hearing that same script. PE is a skill for life.

 It’s too important a subject to mess up.

Please can we act now and start undoing some of the damage?

Many thanks to http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ for the statistics quoted. (1) NHS Information Centre (2008) Health Survey for England 2006: CVD and risk factors adults, obesity and risk factors children (2) Physical Activity Task Force (2003) Let’s Make Scotland More Active – A Strategy for Physical Activity, Scottish Executive (3) Welsh Assembly Government (2003) Climbing Higher – Sport and Active Recreation in Wales Strategy for Consultation (4) World Health Organisation (2002) The World Health Report 2002 – Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life (5) Department of Health (2004) At least five a week – evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health – a report from the Chief Medical Officer