The Daily Mile – Cracking the obesity crisis or papering over the cracks?

18 Aug 2018

The Daily Mile – Cracking the obesity crisis or papering over the cracks?

Of the many health issues and concerns facing our society, the obesity crisis is the most significant. When obesity rates in the young are showing significant and almost uncontrolled growth (no pun intended…) this becomes even more of an issue. Clearly, if young people are already showing signs of obesity, it can only mean more problems in the future.

Appropriately, therefore, the challenge has attracted a good deal of media attention, paralleled by a range of interventions and approaches. This is something several of the GM Team have been involved in through work in PE and Youth Sport and we have been researching in this area for several years. As such, we tend to have a more critical eye on many of the ideas that are out there. One, in particular, is the idea of The Daily Mile or DM.

This was started by a Primary Head Teacher in Scotland who was clearly concerned about the children in her school and well-intentioned in taking action to address the issue. A very simple idea (many of the best ones are) that the whole school, at a set time each day and, as far as we understand, independent of weather, would run/jog/walk a measured mile. Big claims have been made for the positive impact of the DM. Interestingly, but to our minds unsurprisingly, these positive impacts have occurred, not only for the fitness and health markers of the children, but also on their attitude and attainment to academic work. As such, these findings support the long-claimed positive impacts of physical activity on academic performance: claims which have recently received more evidential support and interest. The DM is simple, requires little or no resource and next-to-no specialist training for its’ implementation. What is not to like?!

Alas, all that glitters is not necessarily the golden answer. There are complexities to all aspects of human behaviour and anything involving children is no different. For the moment, allow me to raise three concerns which suggest that the DM, although it might be a useful part of the solution, is far from the whole answer.

Firstly, just getting children physically active at the primary stage is not all that is required. Indeed, Physical Education (PE) is called education for a reason. In simple terms, children need to learn movement skills as much as they need to develop reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic (the 3 rs!). Without the necessary skills, together with the confidence in them, children are quite literally handicapped when it comes to trying new activities. Limited movement prevents the uptake of sports, games and dance, and may even limit play. This problem is exacerbated when free play opportunities enjoyed by previous generations are limited by concerns for safety, the spread of electronic games and the decreased social interaction of playing outside with a bunch of others. Imagine the furore if reading was taught by just letting kids read for 15 minutes on their own without any skills being taught. So, if movement is an important part of health (and evidence would suggest it clearly is), then it requires the development of Physical Literacy (PL) to the same extent that the 3Rs need to be taught.

The second issue relates to the long term impact of the DM. In the old old days, (even before ”I were a lad”), schools would often give children a burst of ‘physical jerks’ as part of their daily schedule. Indeed, the Scottish vernacular for PE teachers (drillies) stems from this. But how many of those drilled as youngsters maintained a physical activity habit after they left school? Indeed, how many of us adults were active through to the end of school, maybe even into our twenties, but have since lapsed? The obesity epidemic will only be countered by preparing people for Lifelong Physical Activity (LPA). Until we can see evidence that the DM benefits are maintained through adolescence and into adulthood, its use as the sole initiative must be questioned. Importantly, however, initiatives focused on PL worldwide have been shown to bring these long lasting benefits.

Finally, I’m afraid I’m a little cynical about the motivations of local councils in what they try to do for PE. In this respect, the DM is no exception. Rather than improve the training of primary school teachers in PE (in my opinion the best option), or even bring in specialist teachers to provide primary PE, too many schools and councils have sought to employ coaches from local sports clubs or just the DM as their approach to the obesity crisis. Hopefully, my points above will show that this is, at the very least, somewhat flawed. It is, however, somewhat cheaper!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not question the positive intentions of those hard pressed primary teachers who are using the DM. Nor do I doubt the positive impact that greater PA will have in schools; although, as many of my teacher friends have pointed out “The daily mile used to be called playtime!”. It’s just that PA in our young people is a complex problem - certainly more complex than this blog can show. It would be great to see primary PE receiving the same levels of thought and requirement for evidence-based practice as we apply to the teaching of English, Maths and Science.


Author: Dave Collins



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