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Lack of exercise policy - Child neglect?

An editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has highlighted a lack of UK policy towards increasing children’s exercise levels, with one of its co-authors suggesting such failings meets the government’s own definition of “child neglect”. 

Published in Sports Management 2013 issue 4
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Activity levels in the UK are worryingly low, according to the medical journal
Activity levels in the UK are worryingly low, according to the medical journal

A recent article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) has stirred opinions after suggesting that the lack of policy to tackle childhood inactivity is tantamount to child neglect. The journal suggested a supposed lack of action towards increasing levels of exercise among younger people, despite access to growing evidence which shows both the immediate and long-term benefits of regular exercise during childhood. The piece also argues that both current and former governments have failed to implement a national policy, with leadership and strategy “totally absent”. 

To tackle the issues now facing children’s activity levels, the journal has called for more cooperation between governments and educational bodies to help decide on a national policy capable of catering for children from all social and economic backgrounds. 

“There has been a persistent failure from this government and former governments to meet children’s basic physical and psychological needs,” said co-author Dr Richard Weiler, consultant in sport and exercise medicine at University College London and club doctor at West Ham United. Weiler also suggested that the lack of policy “meets the government’s own definition of child neglect”, while stating that funds allocated to encourage children’s activity were “pitiful”. 

Recent data from the British Heart Foundation’s Children and Young People Statistics 2013 report shows that 85 per cent of girls and 73 per cent of boys aged 13 are physically active for less than one hour per day. A quarter of children aged between two and 15 spend six hours every weekend day being inactive.

The comments have ignited a debate surrounding the role that both the state and children’s parents play in encouraging activity levels, with Weiler arguing that schools have an important role to play. Former children’s minister Tim Loughton, however, labelled the comments as ‘alarmist’. 

“Finger-wagging and accusing the government of mass-neglect of children deeply undermines the seriousness of this problem,” he said. “I agree we need to do much more for kids and sport, making it a part of their growing up, something that they want to do because it’s fun and enjoyable as well as being good for them – but child neglect is a persistent failure to meet a child’s basic needs, resulting in serious impairment of health and that is a world of difference from kids not doing enough sport. 

“Is Dr Weiler suggesting we should be taking millions more children into the care of the state? Because I don’t think that would be the solution.” 

Stephen Mitchell, head of consultancy at SkillsActive, which owns and operates Capre, the Children’s Activity Professionals Register, said there are dire health and economic implications of allowing successive generations of children to be inactive.

“We must change this by engaging children and young people in physical activity, and the way to do this is through using highly qualified professionals, who can deliver engaging, fun and safe sessions. Children are not like adults, so education on health implications is not enough here. The first step to addressing this national issue is by professionalising how physical activity is delivered to children. Through the professionalisation of this industry, parents will also become more receptive and aware of the positive impact that physical activity can bring.”

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