Smith, A, Green, K and Roberts, K (2004) 'Sports Participation and the "Obesity/Health Crisis"', in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 39(4): 457-- 64.
There seems to be a broad consensus that there are rising levels of obesity among young people, and that this offers a serious public health challenge. There are no agreed measures, apparently, but the consensus from several studies seems to be that '2- 15 per cent of school-age children are obese, and 18 - 31 per cent overweight, with girls and those from lower income backgrounds more likely to be obese or overweight' (458).
This concern about health is often assumed to be as a result of declining levels of participation in sport and physical activity. There is a tendency for the Health Development Agency to stress the need for 'moderate intensity physical activity (such as gardening, walking, swimming, cycling and jogging)... [while the]... Department for Culture, Media and Sport, or... the UK Sports Councils... tend to have a particular focus on the promotion of sport and physical activity' (458). The UK government seems to think that participation in sport is of crucial variable in avoiding chronic diseases. One policy is to attempt to reverse the 'purported decline in young people's sport and physical activity participation' (458). This can almost be a panacea for the health crisis. However, the policy can be questioned.
Earlier work by Roberts indicates that there has in fact been an increase in participation in sport and physical activity by young people over the past 20 years. Data from 2000 indicate high levels of participation -- such as '82 and 86 per cent participating "regularly" in sport in PE classes and in leisure time' (quoting a Sport England study) (459). It seems there has been a particular increase in participation in activities such as swimming, cycling, walking and tennis, as well as 'more competitive team based sports, particularly soccer' (460). Young females in particular seemed to be participating more in soccer, and show the greatest relative increase.
In fact, the data seemed to show that 'Participation levels... continued to be distributed on a bell-shaped curve' (460) -- there is an average increase, despite some wide variations at either end. The evidence is sufficient to question the '"common-sense" claims of the British government' (460).
There is actually 'little evidence that young people in England are less active than at some unspecified point in the past' (460). It is difficult to generalise, and hard to get data from earlier years. It would certainly be an over-simplification to support the Government's claim.
Sport participation as such is not even necessarily connected to daily levels of activity. Participating in sport does require activity at various levels of intensity, but there are many popular forms 'in which high levels of activity are not necessarily a key feature' (again citing a Sport England study) (461). Finally, even if sport participation did generate sufficient levels of activity, 'it is by no means certain that this would result in a corresponding decrease in the incidence of obesity, overweight and fatness expected by government and others' (461). This is because the causes of chronic diseases are more complex.
Studies of the overall lifestyles of young people suggest that they may spend a lot of time being inactive and also participate in sport and physical activity. More studies of the actual lives of young people '"in the round"... in their total context' (462) are required. Apparently one such study has just been launched. In particular, it is necessary to understand the obesity in terms of other matters such showers 'an increased prevalence of snacking and drinking alcohol' (462). [One thing that has always interested me is the point made by Dunning and Waddington -- that participating in sport can actually also encourage post-match drinking].
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