The current recommendations for health, wellbeing and cancer risk reduction highlight the importance of physical activity. Sometimes people mistakenly refer to exercise when they mean physical activity, and therein lies the potential for a whole load of biased views, often stemming from negative experiences of sports and exercise in schooldays.

Photo: Alethe - Own work (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Egg & Spoon Race (Photo: Alethe – Own work (CC BY-SA 3.0))

In the evidence paper supporting the European Code Against Cancer, Leitzman et al define physical activity as “any movement of the body that is brought about by the contraction of skeletal muscle that increases energy expenditure above the basal level.” By comparison, physical exercise or exercise training is defined as “a sub-component of physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive, and is aimed at improving or maintaining physical fitness.” The recommendation for all is “Be physically active in everyday life. Limit the time you spend sitting.”

I have to confess to a very big personal bias about using the term exercise, because for me, it brings back memories of sportscompetitive activities, and the never-ending reminder of my inability to tell left from right. But, I do also have very happy memories of being a “tennis star”…or maybe just the joy from hours of running with no ability, no kit, and no competition…but a big imagination.

In 1966, I fancied that I might be a Wimbledon star. Billie Jean King had just won the ladies singles, and swinging that racket just seemed like the right thing for any eager girl. Mum had just bought me a frock with a zip down the front (in my mind, this is what tennis players always wore) and my Auntie Mary bought me a racket and ball from ‘Woolies’. That summer saw me play for hours, developing my racket skills with the aid of a gable-end ball wall…and an imaginary opponent (my sister refusing to have anything to do with such activities). I awarded myself various cups and medals, and practised the slick moves played out on screen.

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Snapshot of Billie Jean King during the Irish Championships in the 1960s (Photo: Peter Clarke)

In 1969, I went to the catchment secondary school, in what my parents described as a posh area. This was confirmed when I discovered that some of my classmates played real tennis, reportedly wearing white outfits (no zips), and footwear beyond the black “gymies” that we all had for PE classes. There was no point in telling my parents this – it would only confirm the fear that I might have ideas “beyond my station.” After all, my father was firmly of the opinion that if you do a manual job (a real job), you would not have the energy for running around…best thing to do was to sit down in front of the telly and enjoy the experts. So, I come with a bit of a bias about exercise and sport in the adult world, and I have never quite shaken it off.

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A traditional pair of “Gymies(Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0)

I’d like to think that times and attitudes have changed, that opportunities for all types of engagement in sport are wider, and that people do know that exercise is more than competitive games, rules, and teams with significant cost implications. But, I’m still taken aback when I hear colleagues talking about getting all children into sports as a primary action for good health, and, whilst supportive of getting everyone moving – ideas such as getting primary school children to run their daily mile resonates so much more with my own happy childhood endeavours.

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Surely, the fundamentals are about getting kids active and promoting skills that will be important throughout life’s course.  The experience of gentle jogging, brisk walking, cycling, and playing Frisbee, may prove useful long after the enthusiasm for hitting a ball competitively is lost.

Interestingly, all my children play tennis, and on occasion, I have been a little sad not to join in – but sharing walking (and jogging) routes, and going on dancing and cycle outings have stood the test of time…despite my ageing legs! So my view, is that promoting those life skills that are about engaging in regular, everyday, enjoyable physical activity should be first and foremost, followed by building in fun and enjoyable sporting activities. Let’s start with the basics.

– Annie

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