“Off you go!”: Why I don’t think we should be forcing kids to run

I don’t normally blog about anything other than consent/privacy/data protection these days; but there is another side to my PhD – wellbeing, health and exercise.  Broadly, these two apparently disjoint areas are joined together by a desire to understand how we design to accommodate complex human values and lives, and build technology that respects that diversity.  This post is, mostly, though, about experiences far predating my PhD research.

I just read (by which I mean gave a cursorily skimmed) an article on the Guardian debating whether school kids should be made to get a daily mile of running or walking in their routine.  The idea of running a mile fills me with horror.  I detest running.  It’s painful, boring and, frankly, the outside is never the right temperature.  These are pretty much the same reasons I have always hated running.  I hated other sports, too – Football, hockey, rugby; possibly because, to some extent, they involve running in themselves.  I still don’t really like competitive sports – what fun is there in being practically the slowest and falling over all the time; or standing in a field in the middle of winter; or trying to put on f***ing shin pads and football boots?

One particular low point came on school camp in Bude, in year 9.  I had tried the morning run on the first day; decided it was too painful, and presented the teachers with the prewritten excuse note I’d got mum to write.  They accepted it, somewhat grudgingly. (“Why can’t you do the swim?” they asked, although I think they knew that if they’d made me try and swim in the sea pool at 9am in the morning I would have drowned.)  Later in the week, we were taken, sans-teachers, to play ‘games’ on the beach.  One of which (peculiarly for something called a ‘game’) basically involved running up and down the beach.  I gave it a go, and, to my credit, managed a couple of beach-laps.  Then, as was typical, decided that the pain in my leg was probably not worth it.  So I stopped.

“Why aren’t you running?” asked the instructor.
“My leg hurts,”
“That’s a weak excuse,” he replied, “off you go.”

I was, basically, a pretty good pupil, and not one to disobey.  In my whole secondary school career, I had probably less than 20 debits (almost exclusively for not getting my homework diary signed –  I know, WTF?).  On reflection, my decision to basically ignore the c*** and walk off in the opposite direction to sit by myself, in floods of tears (because actually, telling a kid that isn’t lying that they are lying is a really crappy thing to do) was something of a watershed.

In retrospect, forcing me to do activities I hated was bad for my self-esteem and bad for fostering any sense of enjoyment in physical activity.  It led me to the conclusion that, fundamentally, exercise is awful, with no redeeming features – at least for me.  It encouraged a sense of helplessness in the face of physical activity, and a belief that I just couldn’t enjoy any of it.

These days, though, I do at least two exercise classes a week and have a fairly substantial collection of weights in my living room.  These are things that I enjoy, and that I look forward to.   It is common knowledge among many of my friends that Step Aerobics is the absolute highlight of my week.  I like the music, I like that it isn’t competitive, that it engages my mind so I have something to think about other than the discomfort.  I like that I can do it entirely for me and not some twat who’s shouting at me to do it.  What’s more, I’m actually pretty good at them!  V-step – YES. Reverse turn – YES. 2-minute plank – YES!  It’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m doing them in spite of my earlier experiences, though.  In spite of the fact that, instead of setting me up on a path towards an active life, the choice of activities and the way they were pushed in successive schools taught me lessons that I’ve had to unlearn, like “I hate exercise” or “I can’t exercise”.

Through my research, I’ve spoken at length to numerous interview participants who have shared, often very candidly, their own journeys around physical exercise.  Some of these people have always been active, others have come to it later and used it as a way to turn around stressful and unhealthy lives.  What is most striking, though, speaking to these people, is the diversity and dynamicity of their reasons for engaging in physical activity; and the often complicated stories about how they found an activity that really fits with what they care about.  I’ve spoken to nobody, nobody, for whom physical exercise is just about getting physical exercise.  It is not true that – beyond a reductive physical sense – any exercise is good exercise.  The “right” exercise is the one that makes you want to do it again, that fits in with the rest of your life in terms of logistics and goals.  Few, if any, teenagers will go for a run today because it might avert heart disease in 40 years time.  Plenty of people will go for a run because it’s a chance to socialise, to listen to music or to explore the countryside, though.

A single, reductive, approach like “run a mile” is the complete opposite of the rich serendipitous journeys that lead most people to finding those activities that are right for them.  It is actively unhelpful because, for those people who don’t like running, it too often translates into a blunt rejection of all exercise, and a missed opportunity to find something that will engage them.

If we’re serious about getting an active population, we need to help people discover the activities that work for them; and that should start with schools.

 

Footnote

In about 2002, after a decade of resenting numerous otherwise reasonable teachers for making me run, I was largely vindicated in my consistent opposition by medical proof that “my leg hurts” was not a weak excuse, but the actual bona-fide result soft-tissue problems in my right leg and foot.  I still struggle to get my right heel flat on the floor; and my calf muscle is noticeably smaller.  For a long time, because of my experiences trying, I thought it stopped from me doing serious exercise.  I can do aerobics, step aerobics, total tone and weight lifting, though (albeit slightly wonkily).