The low-cost, straightforward and high-profile Daily Mile initiative is drawing wide support, says Andy Daly-Smith, but there is limited evidence thus far for its effectiveness. Schools should focus on fundamental movement skills, fitness, positive behaviour and passion.

The newly published second chapter of the Government’s childhood obesity plan argues that all schools should adopt an “active mile” initiative.

The lure is obvious, and the Daily Mile has captured the attention of schools like no previous initiative. To date, some 4,200 schools across 57 countries have joined in, so it is little surprise that politicians have also jumped on the bandwagon. For policymakers and directors of public health, the appeal is obvious.

First, the programme has little if any cost. Second, no training is required, and third, there is research evidence to support the effect of the Daily Mile on physical activity, fitness and reduced body fat. What’s not to like?

it is little surprise that politicians have also jumped on the bandwagon

To begin, the evidence supporting the effect of the Daily Mile is within its infancy. While the outcomes of the most prominent study suggest substantial effects, a closer inspection of the underlying research design and results offer different conclusions. In the two-school pilot study, the Daily Mile school was assessed over 28 weeks and the comparator school over 12. Physical activity outcomes were established using only 17 per cent of participants (56 children). Finally, and of greatest concern, results suggest that 45 per cent of Daily Mile participants reduced their physical activity levels.

This suggests the Daily Mile works for some, but not for all. To understand why, we need to know what drives physical activity engagement during childhood. A growing body of evidence suggests four key components contribute to a physically active lifestyle: fundamental movement skills, fitness, positive behaviour and passion.

The number one reason for children to drop out of organised sport is lack of fun

Fundamental movement skills – e.g., throwing, running and catching – enable a child to engage in an array of different games-based activities. Higher fitness enables a child to maintain positive engagement with an activity, even with increased physiological demands. Positive behaviour relates to choosing active pursuits over more sedentary ones, e.g., walking or cycling to school. Finally, passion is central to the adoption and maintenance of physical activity behaviours: the number one reason for children to drop out of organised sport is lack of fun.

Two questions remain. First, why is it important to get this right in childhood? And second, how do we get it right? Research from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University sheds light on the former. During childhood years, the brain’s ability to change is high and comparatively little effort is required. Habits , good and bad, are formed based on experience. But as we age, although the brain can still adapt and form new habits, the effort required to do so increases. Through exposing children to multiple positive experiences, we can lay the foundations for lifelong physical activity.

So what works?

Establishing positive sustainable change is challenging. Children’s physical activity response varies greatly, determined by a complex interaction of factors. We need to move beyond singular interventions and adopt whole-school approaches: before and after school, during lessons, break and PE.

To get started, schools might want to prioritise compulsory lesson segments. Children spend four to six hours in highly sedentary lessons every school day. Integrating movement within lessons can be an optimal strategy to increase physical activity.

While the Daily Mile offers one solution, physically active learning (e.g., Tagtiv8) and classroom movement breaks with or without learning (e.g. BBC Supermovers) present others. While teachers may be reluctant to sacrifice “academic learning” time to physical activity, high-quality research shows the beneficial effects of physically active learning and classroom movement breaks on academic performance and classroom behaviour.

We should place children front and centre in the decision-making process

While schools are increasingly being tasked with promoting physical activity, they cannot do this on their own. Multidisciplinary teams, including researchers, sporting partnerships, leisure services and public health bodies need to work together, to first develop, and then implement initiatives.

Finally, why are children so rarely involved in programme design and implementation? As adults, we do not always know what is best for the children within our care. To drive excitement and passion, we should place children front and centre in the decision-making process. You never know: they may actually come up with a solution to the current inactivity crisis that researchers and practitioners have thus far failed to spot.