Research Case Study

Impact: Evaluating child fitness to improve health of youngsters

  • Tagged under

    Health and wellbeing

Boy playing football

University of Essex research has provided the backbone for how to measure and assess the health-related fitness of youngsters.

This research was essential in establishing award-winning fitness assessment company Fitmedia, which to date has worked with over 50 schools and organisations, assessing over 8,000 children and directly influencing charities.

Fitmedia informs public debate by providing evidence supporting the importance of child fitness assessment to five working parties of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for a Fit and Healthy Childhood.

The research has directly influenced Active Essex and Essex County Council, supporting the development of new physical activity assessment methods and enabling the Council to access £10 million funding to transform the delivery of physical activity in Essex.

Internationally, the research has influenced policies in Colombia, directly enabling accurate fitness assessment of over 95,000 children and informing new health and fitness recommendations to improve the fitness of schoolchildren.

The challenge

Despite being the most powerful indicator of children’s health, aerobic fitness is not routinely monitored in the UK. A series of reviews showed downward trends in fitness based on data gathered in children from 53 countries. However, no data were available for England due to no published research in this area.

Without good research to establish the fitness of youngsters, the Government and health-related charities would not know what health strategies needed to be implemented to improve the wellbeing of our youngsters.

What we did

We undertook two large childhood fitness surveys. In 2008, we assessed the fitness of over 300 children aged 9-11 years and compared test scores from the 1998 Chelmsford Children Fitness and Activity Survey. It established that both physical capacity and muscular fitness had declined. Worryingly, the 9% decline in physical capacity was double the global rate of decline reported previously.

We followed this up with the East of England Healthy Hearts Study (EoEHHS) - the first large-scale evaluation of fitness in English children aged 10-16 years.

The company Fitmedia was established to commercially exploit the fitness assessment benchmarking protocols developed at Essex.

Fitmedia‘s award-winning programmes ran 59 separate assessment events involving over 8,000 children across the South and South East to a diverse clientele including primary, secondary and SEN schools and charities.

The company’s foundations were built on Essex research, without this Fitmedia would not have been able to provide its products and services. Without Fitmedia, schools and children across England would not have information about their fitness and physical abilities.

What we changed

The EoEHHS produced the first data on English children’s fitness and the first open access data of this kind. This enabled detailed international comparisons and investigation of potential links.

It demonstrated how large-scale assessments of children’s fitness were feasible; a battery of simple fitness tests in children could be both cost effective and informative for governments and educational providers to understand the benefits of physical activity (PA) programmes on health and wellbeing.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for a Fit and Healthy Childhood was formed to promote evidence-based discussion and produce wide-ranging reports on all aspects of childhood health and wellbeing to assist policymakers to reach decisions based on best evidence.

Fitmedia, utilising Essex research, was part of the working group that contributed to five APPG reports which included a recommendation “to encourage Local Authorities to undertake fitness assessments on the children in schools in their area”.

The Coppermile project, based on The Daily Mile, was delivered by the London Playing Fields Foundation (LPFF) and Coppermill primary school, Waltham Forest. They chose Fitmedia to measure the impact of the project by evaluating changes to the children’s physical fitness and psychological wellbeing.

The evaluation showed improved fitness levels in the children and the school believes the Coppermile also contributed to increased academic outcomes.

As a result of working with Essex and Fitmedia, LPFF want to share the experience of the Coppermile project with other schools and playing field providers so that they can implement similar initiatives.

Fitmedia’s evaluation of a year-long educational and physical activity intervention by the charity Rackets Cubed (R3) at a primary school showed the programme was successful in improving the physical fitness of the youngsters. This led to R3 being allocated increased funding and expanded their charitable work, to run intervention projects in seven areas across England.

In 2016 our researchers worked with Active Essex and Essex County Council (ECC) to evaluate the school-based interventions aimed at promoting physical activity. Our assessment and evaluation programme has provided schools with insight that has informed future planning significantly and influenced Active Essex’s decision to recommend that schools evaluate the impacts of the Daily Mile on pupils’ physical and mental wellbeing.

Building on these ongoing collaborations, we worked with ECC and Active Essex to evaluate more of their physical activity services/programmes which culminated in ECC being awarded £10 million to implement Sport England’s local delivery pilot schemes to transform the delivery of physical activity locally.

In 2014, based on Essex research, the Secretary of State for Education in Bogota, Colombia, incorporated fitness assessment into a regional health study. Data was collected on 41,173 children in 2014 and 55,856 in 2015.

Based on the data collected and consequent concerns about the future health and wellbeing of the children tested, recommendations were made to education institutions to improve the physical capacity and muscular fitness of the children. These included specific recommendations for the integration of physical activity into normal lessons and the implementation of active breaks between classes to include stretching, vertical jumps and walking around the room.