The ex­tra mile

The idea was sim­ple. Faced with a class­room of un­fit chil­dren, pri­mary school head teacher Elaine Wyl­lie de­cided she would get them to run for 15 min­utes – roughly a mile – ev­ery day. The re­sults were so dra­matic that, six years on, the Daily Mile has bec

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Could one pri­mary school head teacher’s idea – get­ting pupils to run for 15 min­utes a day – solve the UK’S child obe­sity prob­lem? Ed Cum­ming re­ports

On a bright morn­ing in early March, Freya Steven­son Smith, a teacher at St John’s Up­per Hol­loway, a Church of Eng­land pri­mary school in north London, asks her Year 1 class to line up on the play­ground. The chil­dren are ex­cited, as five-year-olds on the verge of a mys­te­ri­ous new ac­tiv­ity are apt to be. Be­fore lead­ing them out, Steven­son Smith re­minds them of what is about to hap­pen.

‘Who can tell me what we’re do­ing this morn­ing?’ she asks. ‘The Daily Mile!’ they an­swer.

‘Why are we do­ing it?’

‘For ex­er­cise!’

‘How does ex­er­cise make us feel?’

‘It makes us feel good about our­selves!’ Steven­son Smith sets a timer for 15 min­utes. De­spite its name, the Daily Mile is a mea­sure of time, rather than dis­tance. Most chil­dren run a mile, or slightly more, dur­ing the time, but it is not manda­tory. Par­tic­i­pants are en­cour­aged to run or jog, but a bit of walk­ing is not for­bid­den. The two cru­cial things are that ev­ery­one does it, and it hap­pens ev­ery day, rain or shine (al­though not in icy con­di­tions). There is no kit, no fixed time of day, no spe­cial equip­ment, and no com­pe­ti­tion.

Steven­son Smith counts down from three and her class speeds off. One or two sprint round in an ini­tial race, but after a cou­ple of laps it is im­pos­si­ble to iden­tify any win­ners or losers. The ini­tial en­ergy quickly wears off. Some start to cut cor­ners. Dawdlers emerge, first walk­ing and then stop­ping al­to­gether. There is a cer­tain amount of trip­ping and slid­ing. After six or seven min­utes, the chil­dren be­gin plead­ing in earnest. ‘My knee hurts!’ ‘I need a drink!’ ‘I’m tired…’ Steven­son Smith joins in to en­cour­age the strag­glers. ‘You can all have some wa­ter at the end,’ she says. A few, boys and girls, are now hold­ing hands and strolling at the back, as if ap­proach­ing a ze­bra crossing in croc­o­dile for­ma­tion. She shouts, a lit­tle more firmly: ‘It’s not a so­cial event!’

After­wards, Steven­son Smith as­sesses them. They are less fit than she thought. ‘Fif­teen min­utes is longer than you might think,’ she says, ‘but I didn’t think they’d find it so hard.’ Since mov­ing to London from her na­tive Aus­tralia a year ago, she has been sur­prised by the rel­a­tive lack of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity among both chil­dren and adults. She had read about the Daily Mile back home. When it was sug­gested to her by some­one from Is­ling­ton Coun­cil as a pos­si­ble pro­gramme for her class, she was happy to try it out.

‘I’d no­ticed that I’d be­come more seden­tary too, and had to make more of an ef­fort get out­side. Chil­dren spend so much time in front of screens – and liv­ing in a big city like London, par­ents are hes­i­tant to let their kids go out­side and play and be free.’

Steven­son Smith is far from the only teacher de­ter­mined to take ac­tion against what is be­com­ing one of Bri­tain’s most ur­gent prob­lems, and the Daily Mile phe­nom­e­non is sweep­ing schools. NHS data has shown that by the time chil­dren leave pri­mary school nearly a third are over­weight or obese. The is­sue is es­pe­cially bad in more de­prived ar­eas. Obese chil­dren are more likely to be­come obese adults, and obe­sity is linked to many other con­di­tions, in­clud­ing type 2 di­a­betes, asthma, hy­per­ten­sion and some types of can­cer. Fit­ter chil­dren have been shown to per­form bet­ter aca­dem­i­cally, too.

The Daily Mile seems to of­fer the best re­cent hope of solv­ing the prob­lem. Since it was be­gun, in 2012, it has been taken up, of­fi­cially, by more than 3,000 schools around the world. The real fig­ure is prob­a­bly higher, since there is no obli­ga­tion for schools to re­port when they are start­ing the scheme. In Scot­land, where the Daily Mile be­gan, it’s es­ti­mated that nearly half of pri­mary schools are now do­ing it, and or­gan­is­ers are keen to make Scot­land the first Daily Mile na­tion. The ini­tia­tive has spread as far as Aus­tralia and the UAE, with schools from more than 30 coun­tries tak­ing part.

With the pa­tient man­ner born of a long ca­reer in schools and a warm Scot­tish burr, Elaine Wyl­lie does not have a revo­lu­tion­ary air. Yet it was Wyl­lie who came up with the idea of the Daily Mile, at St Nini­ans pri­mary school in Stir­ling, where she was head teacher, after an as­sem­bly in Fe­bru­ary 2012.

‘One of our vol­un­teers turned to me and said just six words,’ she re­calls. ‘“Elaine, the chil­dren are not fit.” I looked and I knew he was right.’ The PE teacher agreed, and so did the chil­dren them­selves. ‘One of the boys said he “could­nae run the length of his­self ”. So I said to the head of PE, “Why don’t you take them out ev­ery day for 15 min­utes and run them round the field?”’ Re­mem­ber­ing an ear­lier time, when the fields had been too muddy for sport, she won­dered if they couldn’t sim­ply run around the path that had been laid around its perime­ter.

Within a month, it was clear to Wyl­lie she had struck on some­thing. Chil­dren were com­ing back in from the run happy, rosy-cheeked and ready to learn.

Pri­mary schools, and the teach­ers who work in them, are of­fered count­less in­ter­ven­tions to try to im­prove chil­dren’s lev­els of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, but it is hard to make them stick. They don’t want to skip or do daily sprint tests. And along­side a crowded cur­ricu­lum, time is pre­cious. Yet from the start, the Daily Mile was dif­fer­ent. Within four weeks, the chil­dren at St Nini­ans were no­tice­ably fit­ter. Their con­cen­tra­tion in class im­proved, as did their gen­eral be­hav­iour. The school started to ‘win ev­ery­thing’ at in­ter-schools sports com­pe­ti­tions. Ob­servers from Ed­u­ca­tion Scot­land said the chil­dren even had bet­ter run­ning style, purely from the prac­tice they were putting in.

‘You don’t start shout­ing from the rooftops, but I knew in those first few months we had bro­ken the mould,’ says Wyl­lie. ‘We had dis­cov­ered some­thing sus­tain­able.’

‘A vol­un­teer said just six words: “Elaine, the chil­dren are not fit.” I knew he was right’

The Daily Mile was the holy grail of in­ter­ven­tions: it was pop­u­lar, ef­fec­tive and, cru­cially, free. Wyl­lie won a Pride of Bri­tain Award as more and more schools started to take it up. Jim Rat­cliffe, a chem­i­cals bil­lion­aire with a run­ning char­ity of his own, got in touch. He of­fered fi­nan­cial sup­port to help Wyl­lie and her hus­band, John, set up a web­site and help spread the word. Hav­ing planned to re­tire, John and Elaine now in­stead find them­selves trav­el­ling around the coun­try and fur­ther abroad, pre­sent­ing to politi­cians and pub­lic health of­fi­cials. In Scot­land, the Gov­ern­ment and health au­thor­i­ties wrote to pri­mary schools, sug­gest­ing the Daily Mile. In Manch­ester, mean­while, mayor Andy Burn­ham is a keen sup­porter. If the cur­rent rate of progress con­tin­ues, it seems likely the Daily Mile could be­come part of ev­ery child’s day in the UK.

‘It can be a bit hard to take in, when you think of all those thou­sands of chil­dren tak­ing part,’ Wyl­lie says. ‘But it’s ex­cit­ing. If you get the child right, the adult falls into place. When I was grow­ing up we were al­ways out­side play­ing in the fresh air, and I like to think the Daily Mile gives the chil­dren a bit of 1955. In­equal­ity van­ishes: you don’t need the play­ing fields of Eton.’ Typ­i­cally, the main ob­sta­cle to the Daily Mile is not hav­ing a big enough space for the laps, or not want­ing to have chil­dren run be­hind build­ings, out of sight.

While there is no short­age of anec­do­tal ev­i­dence for the suc­cess of the Daily Mile, the kind of hard sci­ence that might see it be­com­ing com­pul­sory has been thin­ner on the ground. A re­port on a three-month pi­lot in­spired by the Daily Mile, where 76 chil­dren at Cop­per­mill school in east London ran for 15 min­utes three times a week, found im­prove­ments to fit­ness, self-es­teem, and well­be­ing and sat­is­fac­tion. Their SATS re­sults were sig­nif­i­cantly higher than ex­pected. More re­search is on­go­ing. Dr Colin Mo­ran, a se­nior lec­turer in sport at the Uni­ver­sity of Stir­ling, and a for­mer St Nini­ans pupil, has been in­volved in two stud­ies of the ef­fect of the Daily Mile, work­ing with Dr Naomi Brooks, also from Stir­ling, and Dr Josie Booth, from the Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh.

Last year he helped lead a Bbc-spon­sored Ter­rific Sci­en­tific sur­vey of the ef­fect of ex­er­cise on 12,000 chil­dren’s con­cen­tra­tion across the UK. Pupils were in­vited to re­port their own re­sults, us­ing an on­line sur­vey. They were first split into three groups. One set was asked to do noth­ing, an­other did a ‘bleep test’, where chil­dren must try to keep pace with ever-quick­en­ing bleeps, which tires them out nearly to ex­haus­tion. The third set did a ‘self-paced’ ac­tiv­ity: ie run­ning /walk­ing a daily mile. The last made even more dif­fer­ence than the bleep test. Re­ac­tion times, cog­ni­tion and well­be­ing were all im­proved.

An­other study, of the ef­fects on the phys­i­ol­ogy of around 400 pupils, is due to be pub­lished later this month. Mo­ran is clear about the need for cau­tious, level-headed re­search. For many par­ents the Daily Mile, sim­ply by get­ting chil­dren out­side in the fresh air, would be wel­come even if it showed – at min­i­mum – that it wasn’t detri­men­tal to their health or per­for­mance. Yet from a sci­en­tific point of view, there has to be a clear ben­e­fit if it is to take up valu­able time in the day.

‘For young chil­dren, 15 min­utes can eas­ily be­come half an hour, once you’ve checked their shoelaces and got their coats on, and over the course of the year that time adds up,’ he says. ‘There has to be a clear ad­van­tage to do­ing this.’ All the re­sults so far sug­gest that there is.

Mo­ran thinks that the so­cial as­pect is one im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion between the Daily Mile and other forms of school sport. Run­ning re­peated short laps means chil­dren do­ing their mile are of­ten are run­ning next to each other, so can talk, and there are no win­ners. As Wyl­lie points out, when asked to re­mem­ber a happy time from child­hood, most of us pic­ture a mo­ment when we were out­doors, play­ing with other chil­dren. Yet for less ath­letic chil­dren, mem­o­ries of school sport are of­ten any­thing but happy. The Daily Mile can be done by any­one; in­clud­ing those with spe­cial needs or in­juries. Chil­dren in wheel­chairs can be pushed around and feel they are par­tic­i­pat­ing.

‘I think that’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion,’ Mo­ran says. ‘Since we’ve started I’ve had emails from teach­ers say­ing, “We think the Daily Mile is great; we have a sim­i­lar ac­tiv­ity at our school.” Quite of­ten that ac­tiv­ity is a cross-coun­try club. They might get 50 pupils out of 150. That’s not the Daily Mile at all. The Daily Mile is the whole class.’

As to why ex­er­cise seems to have such a wide-reach­ing im­pact, Mo­ran ad­mits, ‘We don’t re­ally know. It changes the blood flow and im­proves the fuel sup­ply of sug­ars and fats, and al­ters the hor­mones. It could be all sorts of things. But the dif­fer­ence between the bleep test and the Daily Mile is that the Daily Mile is a so­cial ac­tiv­ity.’

Back at St John’s Up­per Hol­loway, four weeks after that first, some­what chaotic mile, Freya Steven­son Smith re­ports back on her class’s progress. The chil­dren run at the same time ev­ery day, straight after the reg­is­ter is taken. Grad­u­ally they have grown used to it. They say it makes them feel ‘fit and fast’, or ‘happy, be­cause it’s hard’.

‘It has been in­ter­est­ing to watch the chil­dren be­com­ing more aware of sen­sa­tions in their bod­ies,’ Steven­son Smith says. ‘They talk about “their red, hot face”, “big heart­beat” and “tired legs”. I’ve also no­ticed an im­prove­ment in their re­silience. Now, when they trip over, they get straight back up and keep run­ning. They take fewer breaks. We’ve started count­ing their laps, and they are all keen to beat their own records. It took about a week for the rou­tine to get set­tled, but after that I no­ticed them work­ing in class in a more fo­cused man­ner.

‘It’s also help­ing us to fos­ter a sup­port­ive so­cial en­vi­ron­ment,’ she adds. ‘The kids have nat­u­rally started en­cour­ag­ing one an­other to per­se­vere. They’re ex­cited to get go­ing.’ thedai­

‘Now if they trip, they get back up and keep go­ing. They en­cour­age each other to per­se­vere’

Be­low The Daily Mile founder Elaine Wyl­lie, with chil­dren at Hall­field pri­mary school in London

Above Teacher Freya Steven­son Smith in­tro­duced the Daily Mile at St John’s Up­per Hol­loway (pic­tured pre­vi­ous page)

Be­low Stu­dents set­ting off on their Daily Mile at St John’s

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