‘Daily mile’ craze in Britain hopes to tackle national obesity crisis

School children run a "daily mile" at Torriano primary school in north London on Nov. 21.  Washington Post photo by Karla Adam.

LONDON – Torriano primary school in north London doesn’t have lush green grounds or an outdoor running track or a leafy campus quad.

But on most days, its students do something that is being replicated in schools across the country: They put down their pencils, step into the great outdoors and run a mile.

For one ruddy-faced 9-year-old who was breathing heavily after his run, the experience “makes me feel like I’m proud of myself” and means that “during lessons, I can concentrate a bit more.” On a recent day that looked like autumn but felt like winter, he joined his classmates in lapping the perimeter of his Victorian school 12 times before heading back inside to get on with his day.

Every day, tens of thousands of school children across Britain – in addition to regular physical-education classes – run, jog or walk a mile under a voluntary scheme dubbed the “daily mile.” They don’t change clothes. They don’t compete. They don’t know when their teacher will give the green light to rush outside.

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But at some point during the day, come (non-torrential) rain or shine, children complete a mile.

This running craze adopted by schools up and down the country comes amid an obesity crisis in Britain. Simon Steven, NHS England’s chief executive, has called obesity “the new smoking.” The British government estimates that nearly a third of children ages 2 to 15 are overweight or obese.

According to a 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – the latest available that compares all OECD countries – Greece, England and the United States rank the highest for child obesity based on measured data. In a more recent OECD report, published Wednesday, England ranks fourth in a comparison of European-only countries.

Obesity is, of course, an exceedingly complex, multifaceted issue that involves a number of factors including physical activity and nutrition. Diets have changed over the years – Britain plans to ratchet up its battle against sugar with a tax on sugary drinks – and so too have lifestyles, with countless hours spent on computers, tablets and phones.

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To be sure, sports programs here are highly developed – Britain came in second in the medals tables at the Rio Olympics. But changing levels of physical activity at a population level is “incredibly difficult,” said Franco Sassi, a health policy expert at Imperial College London. A recent study comparing the physical activity of children in 38 countries placed Scottish kids among the least active in the world, despite acknowledging the region’s various policies for promoting it.

But there is a growing grass-roots effort by some schools here to get kids moving. Over 1,000 schools across the country have adopted the “daily mile” scheme, including a small village school in Scotland that invites the local community to join in. A number of schools around the world have also jumped on board, too, including about 100 in the Netherlands and 500 in Belgium.

Scotland’s devolved government, which has encouraged primary schools to adopt the idea, has gone a step further, saying it wants the region to become the world’s first “daily-mile nation” with “rollout to nurseries, schools, colleges, universities and workplaces across the country.”

The scheme is the brainchild of Elaine Wyllie, the former principal of St. Ninian’s, a primary school in Stirling, Scotland. Four years ago, a volunteer told her that her students were unfit. Taken aback, she asked a class of mostly 11-year-olds to run around a field and was surprised to see what a struggle it was.

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But after a month of daily running, most of the students could finish the route, which was roughly a mile and took about 15 minutes.

Educators do not have infinite time, and schools cannot be expected to do everything – some argue that parents should be the ones to get children moving more. Plus, 15 minutes a day is an hour and 15 minutes a week that is not being spent on studying math, English or history.

But when Wyllie was a principal – she retired last year – she found that interest in running the mile swept quickly across her school and then to others, as well.

“It’s not PE, it’s not sport, it’s not competitive. There is no kit, no cool or uncool clothes, no body-image issues, no equipment, no staff training. The children just go out, and they are expected to run if they can, or walk,” she said.

The idea is manifestly simple and inexpensive, which is perhaps part of the reason it has spread so rapidly. But Wyllie insists the real key to its success is that children enjoy it because it is a social activity in the fresh air.

Parents and teachers also have reported a raft of benefits – increased fitness, improved concentration, reduced weight, enhanced well-being – and researchers are currently testing to see if there is evidence that links the reported benefits to the daily mile.

Colin Moran, an academic from the University of Stirling, is leading such a study.

Obesity levels at St. Ninian’s are below national norms, he said, and there are anecdotal reports of the children becoming more attentive in class. But his research team is comparing schools in the Stirling area to see if the reported benefits can be linked to the daily mile.

While they are still analyzing data, he cautioned that 15 minutes of exercise alone is unlikely to deliver all of the health benefits being discussed. The World Health Organization recommends that children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day.

But perhaps the data could, Moran said, confirm anecdotal reports that students who do the daily mile are “more willing to run for a bus or run around to their friend’s house than asking for a lift, and so in effect are doing more than 15 minutes.”

Jack Holmes, a teacher at Torriano primary, said he does not think the daily mile is a “stand-alone” solution to the country’s obesity and physical activity woes but rather something to be done “in conjunction” with other forms of exercise and diet.

Supported by the school’s principal, Holmes helped to launch the routine this year and says the benefits for students include enhanced enthusiasm for physical activity and for some, immediately after the run, an improved ability to concentrate.

While some teachers may see the daily mile as “yet another thing to do” in an already time-stretched day, he said that once children are exposed to it, they become the its biggest champions.

“They love it,” he said as he watched a group of students lap the school – some walking, some running hard, some punching the air as they sped by. “They are always asking: ‘When can I go? When can I go?’ “

Video: In an effort to fight obesity, some schools in Britain are taking part in the ‘Daily Mile,’ a way to get students moving and active during the day.

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