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Developing life-long habits of wellness

Developing life-long habits of wellness

I was sadly unable to attend this year’s sports day  as I had been invited to speak at the Telegraph’s Festival of Education on the same day. However, I was still able to prioritise a celebration of sport, as the talk I gave, titled ‘Abracadabra! Girls, sport and exercise do go together’, featured some of our students’ sporting successes, explained our ‘sport for all’ mantra, and unpacked some of the ways that schools, sporting organisations and government can work to encourage more girls to participate in sport. Last year I heard Baroness Sue Campbell speak at a Global Forum for Girls’ Education in New York, at which she unveiled some shocking statistics: one third of children are categorised as overweight or obese at age 11 in the UK, and only 21 percent of boys, and 14 percent of girls, currently meet the minimum recommended guidelines for physical activity.

I firmly believe that children’s initial experiences of sport have a defining impact on their life-long attitudes to physical activity; a child who hesitates at age six or seven before joining in with games might progress through the school considered by others as a non-sporty child – and so isn’t invited to join a team or feel fully able to participate whole-heartedly in the games lesson in the future. They might then perceive their barrier to joining in becoming bigger and bigger and they become more and more hesitant. And so it goes on: children starting secondary school will arrive with completely different sporting backgrounds from one another. Some will have participated regularly in competitive fixtures as part of a team in junior or prep school, while others might have had no such experience. During the first weeks of term teachers will ask the new Year 7 students whether they will be signing up for different teams and those who have previously experienced competitive sports are more likely to sign up while those who don’t yet know whether they would do well in a particular team are less likely to have the confidence to do so – and so a similar cycle might develop here. Some children go through their entire education, and into adulthood, believing that they are ‘not the sporty type’. This is where our ‘sport for all’ mantra comes to the fore – we encourage all students to try their hand at different sports so not only will they have more opportunities to find a sport that they enjoy and play well but also those who are perhaps more confident in their abilities will undoubtedly enjoy the experience of finding a sport in which they are not so naturally talented.

Baroness Campbell also highlighted that this is a generation obsessed by looks – the biggest concern of eight year old girls in the UK today is appearance, and this is creating emotional illness. This is the current situation and, unfortunately, it is getting worse: children born today are on course to be 35 percent less active by 2030. So, when I say that it is our duty as educators to play our part in improving the situation for young people, I really mean it!

Furthermore, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the many additional benefits that sports offer, over and above the obvious impact on physical health and fitness. Participation in sport and exercise are linked to academic attainment, according to a number of sources, including the 2014 Public Health England report. Experienced in a positive, productive environment, taking part in sport can also give young people tremendous self-confidence, drive and self-determination. They develop a sense of respect for one another, as well as for the rules of the game and for umpires. Sport can give children an early opportunity to experience and deal with inevitable defeats and setbacks in an environment where it doesn’t matter, which helps them to acquire positive mechanisms to cope with failure whilst, at the same time, providing opportunities to improve and perform better through hard work and application. Sporting achievement requires dedication and commitment, a message and experience that is often at odds with popular culture where we’re accustomed to seeing people win simply, it seems, by being themselves or by being naturally talented. It’s good for children to experience the reality of hard work and practice paying off!

What’s more, the links between physical well-being and mental well-being are clear. Mr Michael Ledzion, school governor and Director of Sports for Schools, a social enterprise that inspires children to be physically active by exposing them to the country’s top Olympic and Paralympic athletes, claims that “a catastrophic reduction in physical activity amongst children is a lead cause of the large increase in mental ill-health. The recent progress in humankind’s understanding of how the brain functions is extraordinary; physical activity leads to better cognitive function and brain flexibility – it also improves children’s well-being and mental health. My neighbour, a GP, tells me that physical exercise is now his first prescription for anyone with mental ill-health.” On this topic, Mr Ledzion recommended to me a fascinating book that many of you may wish to tackle over the summer too – Go Wild.

It has been well documented over recent months that the number of children suffering from mental ill-health is rising, and that CAMHS (the NHS's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) is struggling to cater for the increased need. With different solutions posed by politicians across the board but, as yet, no change in practice, preventing young people from developing a mental illness is more essential than ever – and one of the ways to do so is by establishing good habits that foster well-being in young people. This enables them to better fend off mental ill-health before it takes root, and also to have more reliable habits to draw on when trying to deal with any arising need.  

It is with all of this in mind that I absolutely delight in hearing from members of the school community who are not only taking charge of their own physical and mental well-being through sporting challenges and regular exercise, but who are acting as ‘sports evangelists’ by encouraging others to be more active too. One such case is our fantastic Miss Nicky Lees, our Head of Languages, who, through sharing her own Marathon Des Sables challenge with the school community, has inspired and encouraged other members of our community to think again about running. She set up a weekly running club for colleagues, welcoming everyone – whether frequent runners, former runners, or novices – to join her running around Cambridge (in all weather conditions). By encouraging others to join her Miss Lees has not only sparked in colleagues a renewed dedication to investing time and effort in keeping physically fit and healthy but, as new friendships have been given space to develop and individuals have enjoyed the benefits that both exercise and spending time outdoors offer, positive habits that boost mental well-being have also been developed. She also set colleagues a challenge to run the same distance as she would be completing during her Marathon des Sables (156 miles) between them over the six days of the challenge. Successfully completed, the new challenge set by Miss Lees was for the group to run the same distance this term as her air miles to the Sahara (2,878)! She has really started something at a grassroots level in school – with many students and staff alike having taken up or re-taken up running during the school year and crediting the decision to do so to Miss Lees’ inspiration. One member of staff who has really taken to the challenge, Mr Mike Hemingway, is sadly leaving the school at the end of the year – however, he plans to set up a similar club and challenge at his new school next year. As Miss Lees’ herself declared: “Hurrah for the ripple effect!”. I too have been ‘infected’ and have recommenced a running habit which had been dormant for two decades!

As the summer break is so nearly upon us, and in which there will be more time for students to get out and play lots of sports or adventure outdoors on foot or by bicycle, it is our desire that the girls will be evangelists – to parents, families, friends and peers – encouraging them to develop a greater appreciation for the outdoors, to develop a positive attitude towards being active, and to develop lifelong habits of wellness. I wish you all happy and healthy summers!