Last week we delved into my family and how we've navigated nutrition through the decades. Today I wanted to take a look about how our attitudes toward fitness and exercise have changed over the years.
There's no way to deal with this topic without thinking about school. For some of you, school PE lessons may have been a welcome relief from sitting behind a desk, you may have relished the opportunity to stretch your limbs and throw a ball, or hit one, or leap over a high jump. But for many of us, I'm willing to bet, PE was not our favourite lesson of the week. It probably conjures up memories of gym knickers and knees turning blue on the hockey pitch, the nervous bubbles in your stomach as the popular kids picked teams, and perhaps the embarrassment of the changing rooms as it felt like all eyes were on you (when in hindsight they were all just worried about their own nervous, teenage selves).
I did wonder whether this PE experience was just my generation, and it seems as if some elements of the above vision were new. While my Mum doesn't remember feeling particularly body-conscious during her teenage years, she does remember feeling as if she was pretty rubbish at sport. Her school only offered the usual girls team sports of netball, hockey, and rounders - all gender specific, with no fancy yoga or dance options. She recounted to me her one shining example of sporting success - a rounders match where she was the last to bat, with not very much expected of her, and, once the bat and ball had connected with a satisfying thwack, she scored the winning rounder! On the whole, however, it was not her favourite subject.
My Gran had sports once a week in school, but she grew up in East Ham, so the students had to walk to a sports ground underneath some gasometers. They played hockey in winter and netball in the summer. Her abiding memory of school sport was having a piece of bone chipped from her ankle whilst in goal during a hockey match!
By the time I was attending the same school as my Mum had, 20 years later, we still learnt how to play netball (in gym knickers and short netball skirts which did little to feed our self-esteem), hockey (on the red gravel which would get embedded in the cuts in your knees as you fell over), and rounders (so near to the summer holidays that we had all but lost interest in doing anything the teachers told us to). We had athletics too where being tall meant I was marked out for hurdles at an early age, and tennis. But it was eerily similar in terms of aims and teaching methods. The focus was on learning how to play the team game, and then playing it, winnowing out those with natural talent so they could represent the school in endless tournaments, and really just going through the motions with everyone else. If you could get out of a lesson, then you would. With forged notes, and "Sorry Sir, I've got my period" at least 3 times a month to get out of swimming, and forgotten kit. Thankfully we seemed to have moved on from the expectation to just do the cross country in your underwear if you'd forgotten your polo shirt.
PE for me at school was so tied up with which social group you were (or more accurately weren't) part of, not wanting anyone to see you in unflattering kit, feeling self conscious about your legs, tummy, boobs (sports bras were most definitely NOT a thing), ankles, you name it, and basically wanting to get through the hour a week as quickly as possible without embarrassing yourself. I was not naturally sporty - I think this may run in the female side of my family! And, as I said in the podcast, it took me until Uni to work out that I enjoyed moving my body on a regular basis. Before then, it always felt like something that was betraying me by not being as lithe and agile as I wanted it to be.
I don't remember any talk from the PE teachers about how exercise gave you endorphins, and endorphins made you happy, and happy people didn't kill their husbands (Sorry, that is the only Legally Blonde quote I promise!). PE was mandatory and that was the stick that was used to get us through the lessons. And if you were uncoordinated (or just not as naturally talented) then there was very little coaching given.
I was interested to see how things had changed in terms of both teaching philosophy and strategies, and from the perspective of pupils, so I went back to Sophie, my borrowed 10 year old, again and also had a chat with one of her PE teachers, the wonderful Lucinda Thomas.
Sophie does sport almost every day at school. She will play hockey, netball, rounders, football, lacrosse, cricket, tennis, gymnastics, badminton and basketball throughout the year. The teachers have a heavy focus on technique, but also teamwork and trying your best. Most lessons involve an activity that builds stamina as well as learning about a particular sport. When I talked to Lucinda she highlighted how the teachers encourage students of all abilities to be involved in representing their school, and in playing as a team. We seem to have moved on from the cream of the crop getting all the attention.
When I got to the end of my chat with my Mum, I asked her how she thought sport and fitness should have been dealt with at school, and what difference she thought it would have made. She was adamant that the focus should have been where each individual was at in terms of their fitness - she was never going to succeed in the traditional sense at sport, and so she felt she was written off. If she had been given the opportunity to enjoy moving physically in some way then she would perhaps have had a friendlier relationship with her body and seen physical activity as something accessible to her. If PE is about building physical fitness then there's no reason why it shouldn't sometimes be a long walk, or a bike ride.
With this in mind I asked Lucinda how they dealt with students for whom sport did not come naturally, and her answer was pretty encouraging.
"We try to make our lessons as fun as possible through fun warm up games and drills and the fact that our teaching is differentiated so that all pupils can find success. Different skills and drills can be set for different abilities...Children can be paired in mixed ability (so they can help each other) or ability groups (so the standard is the right level for them)."
Sophie talked very fondly of how her teachers were proud of them for trying their best, no matter what level that best was at.
So, the attitude is different to when my forebears were younger, but what about the range of activities on offer?
Football was a large part of the community in which my Gran grew up, they lived right next to West Ham's stadium and, at that point, all the players were local boys. My Mum was only just starting to see people exercise during their new found leisure time as she entered her late teens. From my experience as an 18 year old when gyms were becoming more regularly attended through to fitness DVDs and online workouts, to Sophie who sees her parents play golf and run. We can see more variety of activities now and a wider range is accepted as being important for your body - keeping it flexible and mobile as opposed to just being about burning calories in order to fit a particular body type.
Lucinda talked to me about the previous school she worked at in London. She faced the challenge of getting the girls from the 6th form to take part in a weekly PE lesson. They didn't want to get sweaty, red faces or tie their hair back. The department decided to completely change how they addressed PE. They changed the choice of activities from just the usual hockey, netball, etc. to include yoga, weight training, military fitness in the local park, table tennis, dance, trampolining, and aerobics. The girls were allowed to train in their own kit and listen to their own music. As a result more of the girls were enthusiastic about getting involved, and really appreciated the chance to try new activities. The more traditionally sporty girls still tended to opt for the team games but the other options were hugely popular.
I'm such a huge fan of this approach - not only having the confidence to realise that what you are doing isn't working and to make a necessary change, but also leaning in to the reality that every person is different, but still deserves the chance to learn to love moving their body in whatever way fits with them. The focus was on the importance of actual physical activity for your individual wellbeing, and not on an old-fashioned assumption that everyone needs to learn to play netball! I do think that one of the most positive things about social media in this field is the ability for people to see different opportunities. You can do a HIIT class with Joe Wicks on YouTube, stream a more relaxed barre class on Instagram, or follow one of Feel Fit's morning mobility classes on Facebook live. (quick plug!)
I do wonder if lockdown will change how our schools approach sport. The meteoric rise of Joe Wicks, who every child can now recognise on sight, and his Daily PE lesson has introduced children of all ages (and a great many adults too) to burpees and mountain climbers and jumping around like a kangaroo. We made a good start at PE with Joe in our house, but my enthusiasm greatly outweighed Ethan's and we stuck to walks and then, as I've written about before, runs with the buggy. But I've heard from so many of my friends how helpful these sessions were in breaking up the long home-schooling day, and getting their children off the sofa. Joe's relentlessly positive focus, and his mantra of exercise being about making you feel good emotionally as well as physically, has the potential to get those not naturally good at team games to think about how they can enjoy moving their bodies. I do hope that schools capitalise on this and spread the net a little wider for their range of offered activities.
Because, in essence, the difference between my Gran, my Mum, Sophie and I is whether or not we see physical exercise as something that people like us "do". You can't be what you can't see. Sophie sees her favourite youtuber overcoming medical problems to succeed as a professional skateboarder. She sees children her age playing cricket. Where my Gran only saw the men playing football, I can now watch the Women's England team be much more successful than the men! Where my Mum only had the opportunity to play technical team games at school and so decided sport wasn't for her, I can go to a yoga class and appreciate that even uncoordinated me can work at a skill and improve my connection with my body.
We only get one body, and it has to (hopefully) last us a fair while. The more we can encourage our children to seek out different types of movement, the better we are setting them up for a long and healthy life.