While driving my daughter to her karate class I heard a rather sad new item on the radio - BBC Radio 4 to be precise. The item started with the familiar statistic about the rising rates of childhood obesity. I don't think anyone would be surprised to hear that today's children are less active than their parents. And who can blame them? Before my generation sits back and shakes our heads about how long they spend in front of TVs, computers, iPods and games consoles, let's be honest and admit that we'd have done exactly the same had all this technology been available in our day.
But it wasn't, so we had to amuse ourselves in other ways.
But this old story wasn't the sad part. The story was about parents sending their kids to boot camps and sessions with personal trainers. The BBC report had a recording of a trainer being tough on the kids as she urged them to do their star jumps, squats and other exercises. So why is this sad you may ask.
Well let's face it. Who really enjoys doing exercise for exercises sake? As a kid I absolutely loved playing football, rugby, cricket and any team sport. I loved athletics and especially sprinting. But I hated the indoor sessions when we spent an hour doing boring, stuffy old exercises. I mean what the heck was the point?
The exercise class for kids is nothing new. Ten years ago I watched a school session of star jumps etc to encourage kids to get fit and active, and therefore by default reduce obesity. Yet, judging by the expressions on the kids' faces, I would say the session was more likely to put them off physical activity for good. Because doing circuits of lots of exercises that are repetitive and dull is no fun. It also sends out the message that physical activity is mindless and requires no intelligence.
So what can they do instead?
When I was a kid all it took was a ball, an open space and around a dozen or so more friends. We would spend hours playing football with the old 'jumpers for goalposts.' Just think of all the calories we must have burned with all that running, jumping, twisting and turning. Just think of all the developmental advantages of challenging our balance mechanisms and our hand eye coordination.
But the benefits are not just physical. In a game situation we had to learn to work with our team members to develop the strategies to win the match. We also had to learn diplomacy to ensure the match could be played to the rules. We had no referee so it was policed by mutual consent. If we couldn't do this, we didn't have a game. We learned to co-operate, play fair and follow the rules of the sport. All this with just a few kids and a ball playing a game.
So why send kids along to a boot camp at all? While they might be fine for adults, I really don't think kids benefit. Just play a sport, climb trees or go skateboarding, but don't use organized exercise classes - they don't engage them as much as even a casual sporting activity.
Also see - should kids use rowing machines.
Roy Palmer is an athletics coach, teacher of The Alexander Technique and a rowing fanatic.