A step in the wrong direction

Pedometers for children are the latest weapon in the War on Obesity. But mere 'activity' is a poor substitute for vigorous and pleasurable sports.

New Labour is encouraging our children to get active by giving them a pedometer - a small digital device that clips on to the user’s belt - to count how many steps they take each day. While this may have some success in the short term, the obsession with ‘activity’ is a poor substitute for the kind of vigorous exercise, and pleasurable engagement, that comes with sport.

In November 2005, the then minister for public health, Caroline Flint, launched the government’s Schools on the Move pilot project (1). The aim was to stop our children getting any fatter or, as they say in government circles these days, to meet the public service agreement target to ‘halt by the year 2010 the year-on-year increase of obesity among children under eleven’. The idea was to increase the amount of activity nine- to 14-year-olds partake in. In the pilot scheme, children in 50 schools were issued with pedometers; it was deemed to be a success a year later when 43 of the pilot schools said they would like to participate in an extended version of the programme. In September 2007, Schools on the Move will be extended to include 45,000 children in 250 schools. The recipients are all from what are deemed ‘deprived’ areas.

As a sports coach for the past 15 years, I have seen policies come and go (mostly go). I first encountered this latest initiative in July, when the children who were taking part in my tennis camp started turning up with pedometers, claiming that tennis was good because it made them do x number of steps per session. Two things instantly struck me about the government’s pedometer policy: it is utterly pointless, and it reveals a depressing lack of ambition.

Since the 1980s, in the UK children’s sport has been emptied of its competitive content. What was once sport is now often just ‘exercise’ or ‘activity’. One of the main reasons for this is that sport and health have become ever more closely tied together; culturally they are now seen as being almost interchangeable. Consider who initiated the pedometer scheme: the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills, the Youth Sport Trust Project and the British Heart Foundation’s Centre for Physical Activity. These days, you would be very hard pressed to find a sports policy in the UK that is not backed by some health organisation.

When sport is reduced to the formal aspects of activity and exercise alone, it is degraded and hollowed out. As an activity, pedometer-use is one step removed from even this form of downgraded activity. Pedometers are mere measuring tools. There is very little evidence that pedometers are of any use in increasing the amount of physical activity that children take, let alone that they are becoming fitter or more healthy as a result of pedometer-use. In assessing the pilot scheme, the government’s evidence seemed little more than anecdotal.

Announcing the extended scheme in July this year, public health minister Dawn Primarolo said: ‘Pedometers have been proven to increase the amount of physical activity undertaken by not only young people but by their families as well. When this scheme was piloted, we found that children were so keen to improve their step count they often persuaded their families to get more active by going for things like a country walk, or visiting local fitness clubs.’ (2) This demonstrates a further flaw in the policymakers’ approach to sport and health: they prefer quantity over quality.

With this emphasis on quantity, the use of pedometers to improve health and fitness is flawed in two ways. Firstly, although pedometers may measure an increase in the amount of activity (although not necessarily encourage it), they cannot measure the quality of exercise. Going for a walk or run is okay, but it is not the same in terms of quality as playing in a full-on competitive sports event. The latter is almost always harder, even though it may produce the same number of steps as a country walk. The steps I take if I am boxing or playing a football match are different from those that I take when I’m just walking.

The emphasis on quantity over quality is also apparent in the drive to raise the number of children taking part in sport. This usually means that the activity has to be ‘dumbed down’ by being made easier, or reduced to the banal in order to encourage every child to take part. Exercise physiologist Brendan Hayes, who has worked using pedometers before, says: ‘With pedometers it’s a quantity issue. They only measure a very small aspect of physical fitness. In every respect, it’s inferior to sport proper. The children will dump them within a couple of weeks.’ (3)

The sports policies I have seen in recent years always seem to have a gimmicky nature, and the pedometer scheme is no exception. Now, sports and ‘activity’ policies are being merged with other areas of the school curriculum, particularly maths and science. Hannah Sharpe of the Youth Sport Trust says: ‘The children are using the number of steps they have taken to learn about graphs. What’s more, the kids love it.’ (4) The fad-like quality of these policies means that children become bored with them very quickly. Wearing a pedometer is not as much fun as riding a bike or playing basketball. Imagine an Enid Blyton scenario: ‘“Come on Johnny!” said Lucy. “Let’s get the pedometers out, we haven’t used them for months and they were such fun!”’

Winning at sports is a struggle, both physical and mental. The traditional sports also provide a benchmark and standard with which children can measure their performance against others. When you are competing in sport you have to keep up with the opposition and your teammates or you run the risk of losing or being dropped from the team. It is this aspect of competition that inspires children, not the hollow and banal pedometer schemes that are currently being dished out to the underprivileged.

Dan Travis is director of the Brighton Salon and is currently writing a book on the end of competition in schools.

(1) School pedometer scheme launched, GNN, 7 November 2005

(2) Getting kids to step in the right direction, GNN, 13 July 2007

(3) Bright Media interview with Brendan Hayes, 15 August 2007

(4) Case study 6: Pedometers help get ‘Schools on the move’, Department of Health

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