I have a day off today. I am supposed to chill out and try to avoid work at all costs. There will be few of such days before we get to the Olympics in London so I should make the most of it.
When I am off work, I read. This is what i like to do, reading and learning. I could read for hours about anything and everything. I never get bored.
Today I decided to scan the press first. My fault. I grew up thinking that journalism was about reporting the truth and/or writing evidence-based opinions. We all know this is not the case anymore. Despite sparse moments of well written brilliance, we are now inundated by a sea of absolute and utter bullshit. As well as non-sense involving celebrities being famous for God knows what.
In the sea of badly written nonsense, I came across this one written by Liz Jones on the Daily Mail. Liz is a British Journalist and writer currently writing columns for the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and British Airways' High Life Magazine.
Liz is a woman of style. In fact she writes about fashion mostly. This time her column is about sport and physical activity. Her piece on the Daily Mail is entitled: “Sinewy arms are NOT a good thing - and neither is sport”. It is well written and has style, just like every piece Liz has written. There is only one problem with it: it is so badly wrong and full of nonsense that deserves some serious comments. So serious that I decided to write about this on my blog rather than spending my day off with a good book in hand. It actually deserves a letter, but letters to editors or newspapers most of the times end up in bins, and online comments get lost. So my letter will be on this blog.
I suggest the readers of my blog to read the article and make their mind up. This article on my blog is a reflection of my opinion and I may be wrong, but I decided to put it here anyway. Liz’s article pretty much states that “athletes could have spent their precious time more productively reading or studying maths or helping people rather than exercising” or “ Sport in school is the worst thing you can possibly inflict on children”.
So, here it is.
I came across your article on the Daily Mail online entitled “Sinewy arms are NOT a good thing - and neither is sport”. One of the coaches I work with shared the link on twitter (so it’s his fault really!) and I could not resist spending some time reading it. I read it with interest, just like everything I read. However, after few lines of hope, I was hit with your statements and opinions. I am not going to comment on your views about one of our greatest athletes “not being seen as a great advertisement for young women who might be thinking about taking up a sport”. Simply because you totally missed the point.
Sport is about hard work and sacrifice. I grew up being taught that hard work and sacrifice will always make you a better person. I believe in it, this is what I try to teach my son. Physical exercise and sport are about hard work and commitment. Healthy diets are about commitment and hard work. So when someone develops the “sinewy arm” as you call it, after hard work, sacrifice and commitment, without the help of illegal and harmful drugs should not been condemned about being a bad advertisement for young people. It should actually be considered a positive model.
The above is not what worries me, Liz. It is the rest of the article that worries me. An intelligent woman like you, which clearly spent a lot of time reading, studying maths or helping people instead of doing sport should not have been overcome by emotions when writing the article. You seemed to have had quite a sad experience with school sport. I read about your terrible experiences in running in a sea of mud while playing hockey in the winter or your vomit-inducing cross country efforts. Not something I recommend to anyone. What worries me is you being humiliated in public when running cross country. I am not sure about the quality of the physical education programme in Essex at the time you were at school. But I am not aware of public humiliation being part of a cross-country competition. Also, the vomiting bit is not a mandatory experience in a cross country race. It is something which can happen for a variety of reasons, such as stress, wrong timing and content of a meal and lack of training as well as trying to run too fast. I am sure it was a bad experience, but it was your own. I am sure some appropriate advice on what to eat and when as well as more regular exercise would have made your experience a lot better.
Swimming was outside in the cold, gym on thin rubber mats, and in Netball and you were the small one pushed aside by the “bigger girls”. It was tough for sure. It sounds in fact so bad, I urge you to tell us what School you are talking about. It seems to me that a school with such poor standards in physical education and sport could have done some real damage also to your reading and doing maths experience. Your words reinforce even more what I think. I think there should be more money going into school sport. More money to make sure the swimming pools are warm, hockey is played on astroturf instead of mud and women get more choice than just netball (maybe handball, volleyball and basketball if they are into indoor team sports). Most of all, more money should be invested in improving the PE curriculum, the quality of teachers and the possibilities for every child to practice the sport of choice.
Your avoidance of swimming lessons was a choice. A choice you and your mum made. A choice which has not given you the opportunity to appreciate the joys of swimming and the ability to do it safely.
Condemning school sport and physical activity is dangerous and wrong. Your bad experiences don’t necessarily mean that sport in school is everywhere as bad as yours was. Most of all you should know what the consequences of unhealthy sedentary lifestyle are in order to understand better what could be the consequences of what you write.
A woman of knowledge like you should have spent some time doing research. You had been spending a lot of time reading at school after all. Hence, you should know where to find the information. Let me help you. Here are some of the stats about obesity and physical activity published by the NHS.
- Thirty-nine per cent of adults had a raised waist circumference in 2008 compared to 23% in 1993. Women were more likely then men (44% and 34% respectively) to have a raised waist circumference (over 88cm for women and over 102 cm for men).
Using both BMI and waist circumference to assess risk of health problems, for men: 20% were estimated to be at increased risk; 14% at high risk and 21% at very high risk in 2008. Equivalent figures for women were: 15% at increased risk; 17% at high risk and 24% at very high risk.
In 2008, 16.8% of boys aged 2 to 15, and 15.2% of girls were classed as obese, an increase from 11.1% and 12.2% respectively in 1995. Whilst there have been marked increases in the prevalence of obesity since 1995, the prevalence of overweight children aged 2 to 15 has remained largely unchanged (values were 14.6% in boys and 14.0% in girls in 2008).
For boys, on weekdays, the proportion who spent 4 or more hours doing sedentary activities was 35% of those who were not overweight or obese, 44% of those classed as overweight and 47% of those classed as obese in 2008. For girls, a comparable pattern was found; 37%, 43% and 51% respectively.
In 2008, boys aged 2 to 15 were more likely than girls to meet the recommended levels of physical activity with 32% of boys and 24% of girls reporting taking part in 60 minutes or more of physical activity on each of the seven days in the previous week.
Almost two thirds of children who had attended school, nursery or playgroup in the last week had walked to or from school on at least one day in the last week (63% of boys and 65% of girls) in 2008.
Among boys aged 2 to10, more met the physical activity recommendations for children if their parents did so for adults. Among girls, the activity level of parents made relatively little difference to the proportion meeting recommendations, but those who had parents with low activity levels were considerably more likely to be in the low activity category themselves.
If you cannot be bothered reading the NHS data, read the summary above and the last point very carefully.
As you can see Liz, kids are getting bigger and bigger. And they are more likely to get overweight if their parents don’t do any physical activity. This is not bad news for how they will look like. It is incredibly bad news for their future health and the taxes you and me pay. If you are interested in serious science (the one you can find in a University library) you should look at this work published on Lancet (one of the most prestigious medical journals). But I am a generous man. I will do the work for you. Here is what you need to know: "the combined medical costs associated with the treatment of obesity are estimated to increase by £1·9-2 billion/year in the UK by 2030".
That’s a lot of money Liz. Money that me and you will have to generate paying taxes.
I like to pay taxes to improve the quality of life, not to fix errors made in policies and choices. I would like to think that the money I pay provides better libraries, better schools, better roads, safer environments for kids to express their talents and better sports and exercise facilities and coaching. Better medicine, better access to arts. Are you keen to spend your taxes on kids that did not do any physical activity at school, Liz? Are you seriously happy for young people not to understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle, physical activity and diet?
Liz, sport, exercise and diet are all part of a healthy lifestyle you should learn in school. Just like reading and maths. Schools should educate young people not only about using one organ of their body (the brain) but the rest of it as well. We humans, in fact have bodies. This is what we use every day. We use our bodies to move, communicate, work and express ourselves. Bodies are not only a means of transport for the brains. We need to take care of them in order to have longevity and quality of life. Sport and exercise don’t do good only to your body. They do a lot of good to your brain as well, in particular when combined with healthy diets.
Schools and parents can accomplish amazing things if they work together. A recent paper published by Swedish scientists has shown that it is possible to promote a healthy lifestyle and a normal weight development among children from low-income districts with relatively limited efforts involving parents.
Unfit kids are bad news not only for their bodies. A recent study published on Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggested that lower-fit children showed poorer recognition memory performance than higher-fit children in some memory tasks. And you should also read a recent review which clearly summarises currently published research in stating that moderate physical activity is important for youth whose brains are highly plastic and perhaps even more critical for young people with physical disability. Or this one which suggests that evidence shows small but consistent associations between sedentary screen time and poorer mental health. Physical activity and sport also have a positive influence on self-esteem, Liz (again for a scientific review, see here). So, what you wrote about avoiding sport is dangerous and wrong.
I have a kid Liz, and I care. This is why I am writing this. When I leave him at the school door every morning, I hope his teachers will ignite his passion for many things. I hope he enjoys every minute he is using his brain and his body and I hope he develops as a confident, competent and most of all healthy individual. I hope he competes in sport to learn about winning and losing, to learn about respect and hard work, to admire other people’s abilities and develop his own to his maximum, to make friends, to travel and see the world and to meet other people which share his passions. This is what sport gave me and I never got anywhere near winning an Olympic medal as an athlete.
In the last part of your article you then state that today you have to be huge, focused, boring and sponsored to the hilt. I am not sure how you can get it so badly wrong. Allow me to help you again and direct you towards useful information. Your reading abilities will come handy when learning about the athletes training every day with no financial support or sponsors in many Olympic sports (here, here, here, here).
Finally, you state that “The Government and Seb Coe might want us all to run around of a Sunday morning, freezing, but these extremes of excellence are not good for us, surely?”.
Liz, the extremes of excellence give us the inspiration we need in every field. I am sure at some point you must have admired an excellent writer. Someone able to win the Pulitzer prize.
I am not sure where your passion lies. I hope you like arts. Just like the extreme of excellence of Picasso or Leonardo Da Vinci tell us that we will never be as good as them in painting, we should still enjoy doing it and be inspired by them as well as admiring what they accomplished.
In sport, in this country, we are blessed with talent. People who work hard every single day to reach excellence. Excellence which inspires and will inspire our children to work hard every day to be best they can be in every field and in everything they do. So, Liz, if you don’t fancy running in the cold mornings (I don’t do it either!), there are lots of other things you can do which will do a lot of good to your health.
However, if you can’t be bothered to exercise or have problems with sports, don’t demonise it, as our health bill is soaring already and we don’t need further incentives.
Lastly, it is probably worthwhile letting you know that many athletes don’t only exercise a lot their bodies. They exercise their brains too and do reading, maths and help people. If you are short of examples, read something about Katherine Grainger and Tim Brabants. You will find out that their “sinewy” arms have been also used for studying and helping people.