‘It makes children fit to be children’

Source: The Guernsey Press & Star

Date: 19-February-2018

Can the childhood obesity crisis be tackled by something as simple as a daily 15-minute jog? A Scottish initiative dubbed The Daily Mile has proved so successful it’s been rolled out in schools in 30 countries, including Guernsey, and now even local businesses are getting involved. Former headteacher Elaine Wyllie, who came up with the idea, found it improved the health and wellbeing of her pupils way beyond her expectations. Katie Whitford met her.

One woman’s idea to improve the health and fitness of children is so simple and easy to implement it’s staggering that every school isn’t already doing it.

It’s called The Daily Mile and all it involves is getting children to jog or run for 15 minutes each day.

Former headteacher Elaine Wyllie came up with the idea after comparing modern youngsters with the children of the 1960s, who ran about, walked to school, played outside all day and roamed freely. There were no risk assessments, they stayed out all day and came home for tea. Childhood obesity was almost non-existent. She concluded that fresh air, fun, friends and freedom were a winning combination – and this had also been the seed of an idea for her.

Around 15 years ago Elaine saw an article about the prevalence of overweight and sedentary children and wondered to herself why on earth the children couldn’t be encouraged to run around the park each day? She assumed this must have been considered and dismissed, or they would all be doing it by now.

Fast-forward to 2012 and Elaine was observing an active assembly in her primary school, St Ninian’s. A volunteer helper stated, bluntly, ‘they are not fit, are they, Elaine?’ She spoke with the PE teacher who agreed that, yes, the children were mostly out-of-breath after just the warm-up. So, she took the Year 5 outside to see what they could do.

‘It was a shocking sight,’ she admits. ‘I watched with mounting dismay.’ What she saw was a group of unfit children, doubled-up and stuck. And what happened next changed everything. The following day they sat down, together, and talked about what was happening, and the children agreed that it was ‘pretty bad’.

‘So, how keen are we to do something about it?’ She asked them. It was an epiphany for Elaine and, most importantly, for the children, who took ownership of the issue from the start.

It was a cold Scottish February and the class did a four-week trial of jogging or running for 15 minutes outside each day. It was far too cold to get changed into kit, and this would turn out to be serendipitous as it helped keep things really simple. Elaine expected it to go under the radar as a lot of children don’t like PE or cross-country. ‘But something amazing happened,’ she explains. ‘They made The Daily Mile their own, setting themselves challenges, doing extra laps. They became happier, more focus in class and their behaviour in class improved.’

In four short weeks, Elaine was seeing a class of apple-cheeked children, out-of-breath (in a good way), cheery and glowing with health, as children should. From one class, on it went. Other classes and parents in the school became curious and wanted to be a part of what was happening. By the summer all 15 classes in the school were doing The Daily Mile and by the autumn the nursery children were doing it too. The children of St Ninian’s got fitter and fitter.

One of the strengths of The Daily Mile is that it is non-competitive and totally inclusive – irrespective of age, ability or disability. A spin-off consequence of all this improved fitness was that the school was, all of a sudden, winning all the athletics competitions. Nationally, in very difficult cross-country competitions they had four or five team golds.

‘For one year,’ says Elaine, ‘we watched it become something amazing, and then we started to tell our community that we had something special.’ It was now 2015 and the media became interested. ‘Unbelievably,’ Elaine explains, ‘I was named Pride of Britain Teacher of the Year and that helped get it out there.’ Soon, other schools and local authorities became interested.

Just two years on from that point, and industrial quantities of children are now getting measurably fitter thanks to Elaine’s simple initiative. Scotland wants to become the first Daily Mile Nation and over half a million children are now doing The Daily Mile in 30 countries around the world.

So, how does it work? In Elaine’s words, it’s ‘completely and utterly simple.’ Therein lies its success. The 15 minutes can be slotted into the school day virtually seamlessly – the children get up from their desks and go outside. They go out in virtually all weathers, perhaps with trainers, although these are not essential; the teacher opens the door and out they go. After the 15 minutes – which will more often than not equate to a mile (again, there is no pressure to do this), the children come back in, straight into their work. Their focus is immediately improved. They are energised and ready to learn. There is no lengthy transition from classroom to outdoors, no kit is needed and this also eliminates any body image concerns potentially linked to normal PE. It can be done anywhere, provided there is some outdoor space that is not muddy.

The reasons for The Daily Mile’s success are quite complex, but why do the children love it so much? According to Elaine, there are short-term wins – children become fitter and happier so quickly, and there are medium-to-long-term wins in terms of better behaviour and confidence, self-esteem and resilience. Running every day becomes the norm and they are able to get fit in just four weeks. For teachers it couldn’t be easier to implement. It’s free, it’s accessible and sustainable – from the toddler years upwards. ‘It’s utter common sense in a very complex environment,’ says Elaine. One that is dictated by planning, assessment and workload. ‘It’s one for the kids and one for the teachers … It’s the switch that you throw.’

The results and potential for everyone are startling. The rate of obesity in St Ninian’s children has become half that of Scotland’s children as a whole.

‘It makes children fit to be children’ she says. She explains that 66% of children don’t have a sufficient level of fitness to play hide and seek and simply be children. Elaine is waiting on statistics for adults but nobody can deny that we need to get an inactive population moving more. How is it that such a high proportion of our national cohort of children can be so unfit?

‘I can hardly believe I’m saying these words,’ she says, incredulously, ‘but the Scottish Government thinks it will impact on the NHS … that it will help bring down the huge burden that obesity and inactivity brings.’ They are excited because The Daily Mile needs no kit, no cost, ‘no nothing’.

In 2015, The Daily Mile Foundation was established with the quiet support of wealthy industrialist, INEOS chairman and runner, Jim Ratcliffe, and this has helped to spread The Daily Mile initiative into 30 countries so far.

It is now catching on with all manner of organisations not just schools. Scottish Power is rolling it out to their employees, while in Guernsey staff at Specsavers have started trialling the idea. Other organisations include care homes, colleges, nurseries, public service employees and some in the private sector. Ten Guernsey schools have adopted the scheme so far, slotting the routine into their daily timetables.

Elaine adds that the secret of its success is that the children own it and they are the best implementation partner of all. ‘All children are given an equal opportunity with The Daily Mile. It closes the inequality gap and the health gap and gives a healthier life expectancy. It’s such a simple concept. The Daily Mile is a quick win for schools but is for absolutely everyone.’

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the content creator, The Guernsey Press & Star (Main).