How football helps tackle unhealthy lifestyles

Project increases physical activity and healthy eating among primary school children.

Match Fit

£500,000 from 2009 to last month from the Premier League Community Fund. Newcastle Council is now providing around £35,000 per year

Around one third of children in England are overweight or obese by the end of primary school, according to the latest figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre. In the North East, 36 per cent of year 6 pupils are overweight or obese, England’s second-highest rate after London.

Six years ago, health professionals got together with the Newcastle United Foundation, the football club’s community arm, to discuss ways of tackling obesity among primary pupils. The result was the Match Fit programme.

Match Fit is a six-week programme for seven- to 11-year-olds in primary school. Each weekly session consists of an hour of classroom activities and an hour of football or other physical activity, led by coaches from the Newcastle United Foundation.

Children’s knowledge and physical skills are tested in the first week, which includes a timed one-mile run and the “flamingo test”, involving standing on one leg for one minute. This assessment is repeated in week six to see how they have progressed.

The course includes learning about what makes up a healthy diet, the calories provided by different types of food and how long it takes to burn them off, and the effect of exercise on the body.

Newcastle United footballers sometimes accompany the coaches to answer children’s questions about their diet and fitness and join in the activities. “The power the footballers have is astounding,” says Dr Melissa Fothergill, senior lecturer in sports and exercise psychology at the University of Northumbria. “The children are spellbound and it’s clear they’re fully absorbing everything.”

Sixty-five Match Fit programmes have been run across Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland schools in the past academic year and more than 10,000 children have been involved since it started.

The Newcastle United Foundation’s own research indicates an increase in nutritional knowledge among nearly four fifths of participants and improvements in fitness for nearly three quarters of them.

Match Fit is now being evaluated by the University of Northumbria’s Healthy Living Research Unit. Findings based on a sample of participants at one Newcastle school suggest children are fitter by the end of the programme, performing better in the “flamingo test” and running faster.

Twenty-four randomly-selected year 4 pupils, who discussed the impact of the programme four months later, all reported eating sweets just once a week, eating fruit at other times, and replacing sweetened drinks with water.

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