Childhood Obesity – a very real impact

Categories Big Picture

Since 2016, I have been fully committed to developing children’s fitness – in educational and sports settings – through the Gymrun program. Through my work, I have enjoyed whole school successes, but have failed to reach some of the least active and most disengaged children, many of whom are obese. In November 2021, we heard of the government’s latest commitment to childhood obesity. 15 clinics nationwide. £6,000 per child to support those most vulnerable. 

This was exciting.

This new clinical funding was intended for dieticians, social support workers, mental health professionals and similar practitioners. There was no mention of integrated support, linking regular exercise with fitness progression. In Gymrun, we have a leading program designed to build fitness, fitness understanding, physical literacy and resilience in all children. For these children with complications from excess weight, I was convinced the only adaptation we needed was to create a clinical exercise context.

So in response to the November 2021 news story, I made a note of every academic and health professional whose name was published. I reached out to these people with energy and optimism. I received two replies: 

Professor Julian Hamilton-Shields – Founder of the Care Of Childhood Obesity Clinic. University Hospital Bristol & Weston Trust

Sophie Solti – Policy lead. CYP Transformation Program Team, NHS England & NHS Improvement

The wheels of the NHS turn slowly. But in September 2022, we began the Gymrun NHS program for children with complications from excess weight, in partnership with the COCO Clinic and the UHBW Trust. These last twelve Saturday mornings have been some of the most enjoyable and rewarding teaching experiences in twenty years of working with children of all ages and abilities in Physical Education, Exercise and Fitness. 

Education meets Health.

Many of the children involved have wide-ranging emotional, behavioural, social and physical challenges. In this program, we have focused on simple, differentiated bodyweight exercises and short bursts of walking or jogging. Every four weeks these children have engaged wholeheartedly in inclusive fitness testing. They have been encouraged to record additional bursts of physical activity undertaken each week.

No bells. No whistles. No fit-tech. No expensive machines or gadgetry. No games or activities designed to ensure engagement and enthusiasm. Simple exercises focusing on personal best and physical challenge. And they have loved every minute. With low physical competence, confidence and motivation, these are the children who avoid PE lessons, don’t do exercise, hate sport and in many cases find it difficult to get up off the floor unaided. So how have we managed to sustain their engagement and motivation for exercise? Here are four reasons:


I have always believed our relationship with physical activities and sports is tied heavily to their context. Admittedly, some of us warm to the physicality of contact sports, others to the risk of adventurous activities, and so on. But when we strip physical movement back to is inherent fundamentals, remove external competition, make the environment safe and trusted, provide achievable and differentiated activities, regularly and overtly praise genuine effort, and make it clear that participation is self-regulated, there is not much not to like.


What I have just described is perhaps the framework of a well-taught PE lesson. As well as significant Physical Education teaching experience, I have the added advantage of a personal training qualification – facilitating the nuanced and subtle adaptations to make exercise relevant and accessible for each of these children’s physical learning needs. Delivery expertise is most probably a pre-requisite of this program’s success. 


In week one, I remember being overwhelmed by the wide-ranging needs of these children. After a brief rabbit in the headlights moment, parents, carers and siblings were on hand with limitless determination. By week 12, just about every child taking part had a champion alongside them. Parents, siblings and carers alike, these champions were the strength and stay of these children. Hugely supportive and essential. 


For me, the key feature of this Gymrun NHS pilot program, and the reason why it must be taken seriously, is regular fitness testing. Fitness testing, or inclusively monitoring physical progress, is the long-lasting, aspirational glue which is continuing to engage and motivate these children each week. The resulting feedback enables these children to think critically and reflect honestly on their performance, deal with short term failures, and build resilience with what they learn about themselves.

Learning what they can and cannot do and exploring their physical limits enables all children to better understand their fitness and how to improve it. Monitoring fitness progression shows we care about this. And the icing on the cake – celebrating effort, performance and progression with the Gymrun fitness award badges. 

Children love badges.

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