What do we want physical activity to achieve for Norfolk's young people?
Posted: Thu, 03 Jan 2019 13:15 by Mrs Kristen Hall
In December Sport England released the inaugural set of Active Lives data for children and young people. Sport England has been collecting data on levels of physical activity in adults since 2005 but we have never had a comprehensive understanding of what the picture is for children and young people.
Whilst not any worse than the national position, Norfolk's data makes for worrying reading. A third of young people in the county are inactive, doing on average less than 30 minutes of physical activity a day and only 18% are reaching the chief medical officer's guidelines of 60 minutes per day.
This data may not be a surprise. Sedentary behaviours are being built into young people's lives but it has still, rightly, led to a national call to action for all of us to do more to get children active and improve their experience of sport and physical activity.
I agree, the inactivity levels of young people are concerning for many reasons, however, I think we should be cautious in using this data as the sole basis for our action.
On the same day that the data was released, I attended the Norfolk Children and Young People's Mental Health Conference where I heard about the challenges facing young people in our county. I learned about the importance of healthy development, and front-line professionals told inspiring stories of families flourishing in challenging circumstances. What was striking was the unique situation of each family; there was no 'one size fits all' solution.
The Active Lives data gives us a good insight. It helps give us an overview of the current situation and highlights the challenge we face but we must be careful not to lose sight of the individual whilst pondering the population.
We know that physical activity can contribute to changing lives. It can help young people develop physically, it can raise aspirations, reduce anxiety, and improve resilience. But the young people who can get the most from becoming physically active are often those who are less pre-disposed to take up activity. Intrinsic enjoyment of sport and physical activity isn't enough, and the sport and leisure offer hasn't worked for them. Each individual has their own feelings about physical activity, their own perceptions, barriers and potential motivations, and 'population-level', 'one-size fits all' approaches aren't sensitive to their individuality.
I acknowledge that a tailored approach is difficult, not to mention expensive, when we have a third of our young people classed as inactive. And of course, the sector can be shifted to be more inclusive, more accessible, and messaging about the importance of physical activity will encourage some, but I believe there is a big question for our sector. Are we trying to shift that Active Lives percentage up a few points, or are we working to change behaviours in those individual young people who can reap the most rewards from an active lifestyle?
Each requires a very different approach, and I don't believe either approach on its own can achieve both outcomes. With limited resources available, we need to decide what we really want physical activity and sport to achieve for Norfolk's young people.