As we hear that the government will fail to reach its targets to halt childhood obesity by the end of the decade, Natalie Valios visits an initiative in Westminster aiming to help children become healthier, fitter and happier
Only the Sport England sign outside the former school gives any indication that the building on the residential street of Kilburn Lane in west London is Moberly Sports and Education Centre.
Once you step inside, though, you are surrounded by the paraphernalia to be found in modern gyms. But on several nights a week this is where the resemblance ends, when children, rather than adults, take to the rowing, running and weight machines.
The Westminster Council initiative, which has been running for 18 months, is funded by Westminster primary care trust, run by Westminster sports unit and is free. It aims to increase activity, develop healthier lifestyles, improve health and enhance self-confidence of children aged 10-16. After a referral by their GP or health visitor, children receive individual tailored exercise programmes drawn up according to their fitness and needs.
They receive personal tuition from Denise Ramsay-Overall, the junior exercise referral instructor at the gym. She points out that the programme isn’t just for children who are overweight, as it also takes referrals of children with health conditions such as asthma, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Adam Burrage, 13, is a case in point. He has Asperger’s syndrome and has been attending the gym since February.
“I wanted to come here to use the machines and get stronger,” he says. His favourite part of the session is the free time at the end and using the treadmill. His aim? “To have a six-pack.”
Ramsay-Overall says: “Adam is here to help with his social skills and build up his confidence. The common denominator with all the kids is that they have low self-esteem. The main aim is to change that.”
Unlike adult weight-loss classes, the children are not weighed before, during or after the programme unless they feel comfortable about it. “Scales can give children complexes and we don’t want them to get paranoid,” says Ramsay-Overall. “They could become obsessed with [their weight] and jump on the scales every morning. Instead, we measure success by how many clothes sizes they have dropped, or how they look and feel when they see themselves in the mirror.”
The pre-pubescent children who attend the programme are still having growth spurts and these could be impeded if they used heavy weights, she says. So their routine majors on sit-ups, lunges, press-ups and squats. Sessions start with a half-hour warm-up involving cardio-vascular work on the walking machine, stepper or rower. “This gets the mind and body prepared for the workout to come but we don’t want to make it too taxing,” says Ramsay-Overall.
This is followed by up to 45 minutes of body weight resistance work and then the final 15 minutes is free time. “You want to make it enjoyable for them so they can go on the other machines. It gets them into a pattern so that when they are older they are in a routine.”
Parental involvement is key “otherwise I could talk until I’m blue in the face but nothing would change”, says Ramsay-Overall.
So at the start of the programme she gathers the parents and children to tell them about healthy eating. This includes a quiz on good, bad and mediocre foods and the children are given a guide on dietary balance. Throughout the programme Ramsay-Overall asks parents how they think their child is doing.
As for the children themselves they say they feel more energetic, stronger and more confident, says Ramsay-Overall. “They know this is a lifestyle change and that the food and exercise regime go hand in hand.”
There seems to be no resentment from the children about being sent to the gym by their parents and GP. “This is because it’s not what they think it’s going to be – it’s fun, we joke and laugh. It is hard work but they don’t mind it,” she adds.
It must also help that Ramsay-Overall is enthusiastic and has an obvious rapport with all the children. Their smiles tell it all.