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Opinion Making kids do a ‘daily mile’ misses the bigger point about fitness

Every day, tens of thousands of schoolchildren rise up from their desks and head outside for a 15-minute run.

The "daily mile" is the latest idea being trotted out to counter the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. It's all the rage in Britain and is now spreading to other European countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

The daily mile – 1.6 kilometres for the imperially challenged – is not part of gym class, nor is it a substitute. Teachers simply decide, at some random point in the day, that their charges should get up and move. Students do so in their street clothes and at their own pace. To complete a mile in 15 minutes requires an effort somewhere between a brisk walk and an easy jog.

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The concept is the brainchild of Elaine Whyllie, the former principal at St. Ninians Primary School in Stirling, Scotland. She implemented the daily mile at her school after learning from teachers that students struggled to complete a lap at a nearby sports field (roughly a mile in length).

In February, 2012, Ms. Whyllie started a one-month experiment, getting the children to run a mile a day, and reported that they returned "apple-cheeked and bright-eyed" and were more attentive in class. That was enough to launch a craze that has now spread to more than 1,000 schools.

The benefit of this approach is that it's simple and inexpensive.

The problem is that it's also a bit simplistic. The causes of childhood obesity are wide-ranging and complex, and the solutions need to be too. Yet, time and time again, we embrace approaches that make policy-makers feel good but don't do much for kids.

There's nothing inherently wrong with encouraging kids to be more active, even for a nominal 15 minutes a day. Nor is physical-education class a bad thing, but it has to be done properly.

Studies show that, in the typical 30-minute gym class, kids only spend between three and six minutes actually moving. For many children, PE is a form of ritualistic humiliation, though by all accounts that is much less of an issue now than in earlier generations. (And, here, right on cue, some will decry that today's children are coddled and bubble-wrapped and that punitive push-ups and laps build character. But that's nonsense.)

Regimented programs are not a substitute for what we really need to do: make physical activity (and healthy eating) easy, and a seamless part of everyday life.

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Nowhere is fundamental cultural change more desperately needed than in schools, where children and adolescents spend the bulk of their waking lives.

When you drive kids to school, sit them on their butts all day, ban running at recess, whittle down their lunch hour so much that they barely have time to cram food down their gullets, then drive them home again to sit some more and do homework and stare at screens, you have essentially created the ideal conditions for unhealthiness.

We have, by engineering activity out of our daily lives, allowed obesity to flourish.

A-mile-a-day is not going to do a whole heck of a lot if kids spend the other 23 hours and 45 minutes of the day immobile, sitting and eating crap food. (Let's not forget nutrition is the most important element in tackling obesity, even if the focus of this discussion is another part of the puzzle, activity. There is much truth to the adage "you can't run away from your fork.")

Every child is a natural athlete. They love to run, to jump, to climb, to swim, to move.

But we beat it out of them with an excessive number of organized sports (which invariably consist of a lot more standing idle than moving) and way too much sitting and screen time.

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For decades, research has shown that the optimum school day should consist of two-thirds classroom time, one-third physical activity and no homework. In addition, active learning should be embraced; that means, for example, teaching kids to count by skipping, and learning geography by hiking. And, if we want children to eat properly, we should feed them healthy foods and teach them to cook.

We make the fundamental mistake of thinking that more classroom time and more study give better results.

The reality is that active kids are primed for learning, and literacy and numeracy are bolstered by physical activity, play and miles and miles of fun.

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