Walk to health

It’s National Walk to School Week. Workingmums.co.uk talks to Gareth Lippiatt, founder of Sports Xtra and Chairman of COMPASS, the trade association for deliverers of sport and physical activity in schools, about how busy parents can encourage their kids to be more active.

Busy working parents need simpler messages about the importance of regular exercise for their kids, says one of the people behind this week’s National Walk to School Week.

Gareth Lippiatt, founder of Sports Xtra and Chairman of COMPASS, the trade association for deliverers of sport and physical activity in schools, says the five a day campaign to get children to eat more fruit and vegetables has been a great success, but the campaign to get children active needs to step up a gear.

He thinks having a simpler message would help. “We need to say something like do some exercise for one hour a day to get the message over,” he says, citing World Health Organisation recommendations.

This can be either structured exercise – like sport – or unstructured exercise, such as walking to school. The beauty of walking to school, says Lippiatt, is that it gets parents taking exercise and acting as good role models to their children. He adds that unstructured exercise tends to get overlooked, but says it is important for children to do a combination of bothforms of activity.

Lippiatt says research conducted by his organisation shows around 50 per cent of children at primary school walk to school, but he adds that this number could be as high as 95 per cent since most families live within a 20-minute walk from school.

A number of factors put them off, he states. The first is fears about road safety. “This needs to be addressed,” says Lippiatt, proposing more reduced speed limits around schools, increased traffic calming measures, better street lighting in the winter and more support for initiatives such as the walking bus, which the Co-op is sponsoring.

Another issue, a key one for working parents, is lack of time. “Working parents need to get to the office and if it takes 20 minutes to walk to school that is an extra 40 minutes on their journey into work as they have to walk back home,” says Lippiatt. He thinks flexible working so parents could get into the office later or work from home would help.

The third key obstacle is that many parents get into the habit of driving to school and are apathetic about getting their kids to do physical activity. “We need to get the health benefits over to people – both the direct and indirect ones, including the risk of higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels and the rise in child and later adult obesity of creating unhealthy habits,” says Lippiatt. “The habits you create in childhood are carried into adulthood so we need to start at primary school.”

He adds that the responsibility for ensuring children get enough exercise should be shared between parents [the main influence], schools and the wider community, including local businesses. “Everyone benefits from encouraging kids to be healthier,” says Lippiatt. He adds that research shows rush hour traffic increases by 18 per cent because of the school run, with all the environmental consequences this brings. “It’s a self-perpetuating circle,” says Lippiatt. “If we reduced the traffic on the roads they would be safer and greener.”

He cites four key messages that the campaign wants to get across: the importance of incidental activity in reducing obesity; the benefits to the environment of reducing school run journeys [Lippiatt says 15 children walking to school who were previously driven could save the equivalent of six airplanes flying to New York in harmful carbon dioxide every year]; the financial benefits of walking to school [it could save around £400 a year per family in fuel costs]; and the fact that healthy habits established in childhood carry over into adulthood. “The negative impact on health of not encouraging exercise may not be manifested until middle age,” warns Lippiatt. “There have never been as many obese people as there are now and we don’t know what the effects will be. Our children are a ticking time bomb.”

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