How can we create a nation of healthy teenagers? by Peter Gibson

Recent research from Understanding Society (.pdf 4.26Mb) shows young people with healthy lifestyles and diets have a greater sense of personal wellbeing. Peter Gibson of Rathbone UK reveals how exercise can bring a confidence-boost to some of Britain’s most deprived young people – and calls for cheaper sport for the young.

For many of us the word, ‘malnourished’ conjures up pictures of starving children in the developing world.

Such images should provoke deep emotion and a desire for change in any civilised human being. They should also make us realise how fortunate we are that our children don’t endure such hardship and that such things don’t happen here.

But Save the Children did much to upset that cosy comfort recently when they published research suggesting that 3.5 million UK youngsters are living below the poverty line (.pdf 1.05Mb). More than a quarter of  parents say they have missed meals in order to feed their children.

At any time, malnutrition should not be a reason why a young person cannot achieve an education, gain a job or lead a happy and stable life.

But in a year when British sport has excelled in the Olympics, it is a positive crime that young people should be going without food and end up being starved of the promising future that should have awaited them.

The challenge to Government and indeed those involved in the leisure industry is to provide a wide variety of sporting activities at affordable prices. In a recent Rathbone survey (.pdf 262Kb), a third of respondents felt gym membership was too pricey.

Rathbone was probably one of only a few institutions in the UK which, though horrified by Save the Children’s statistics, was not surprised by them. The charity was formed in Edwardian times by philanthropist Elfrida Rathbone (1870-1941), who saw the crippling effects of poverty and hunger as she tried to guide and mentor children other less enlightened members of society viewed as, ‘unteachable’.

Today the charity which still proudly bears her name is working with young people from some of Britain’s most deprived areas. Its goal is to overcome the barriers that have so far held them back in mainstream education and to move them on to college or work.

There is no greater hindrance for a learning mind than hunger. And a recent Rathbone survey revealed that a quarter of its trainees regularly went without a cooked meal each day.

The old adage, “you are what you eat” was much in evidence. Many of these young people lead a roller-coaster life plumped full of pressure and stress.

Should we be surprised that their daily regime was made up of cigarettes to calm them down? Some 60 per cent smoked, twice the national average.

Diets often consisted of sugar-filled drinks to compensate for a lack of proper nourishing food – especially at breakfast time.

The results of these unhealthy lifestyles are sometimes obvious to the eye. Childhood obesity continues to be a national obsession, though a resolution to it has yet to be found.
Disturbingly, 43 per cent of those questioned by Rathbone had already experienced problems such as shortage of breath, anxiety and diabetes.

Rathbone’s centre in Glasgow specialises in making young people ready for work. It recently reported that lack of physical fitness was one of the reasons why construction bosses wouldn’t employ young people. Put simply, they were simply too weak to carry a hod of bricks.

Accessibility to energy drinks has become much easier even for those from poorer homes. Beginning life as a supplement for the ill or those taking part in intensive sport, they are now priced at as little as 80p a litre. A third of Rathbone learners were imbibing seven sugar-soaked sodas per week, with some drinking over 30.

Rathbone’s Leicester training centre responded to this particular problem by banning energy drinks from its entire premises.

Sanctions can of course backfire, making the product look cooler. So Rathbone thought long and hard before prohibiting them.

The effects were astonishing. Tutors immediately noticed calmer behaviour and improved attention spans.

This change was acknowledged by trainees too. They immediately endorsed the ban through their Youth Forum.

Given recent claims that five people have died from consuming a certain brand of energy drink recently in the USA, one wonders whether information around the content of energy drinks and their possible side-effects shouldn’t be more readily available.

The battle to improve teenage health has also been taken up a few miles away at Rathbone Coventry, where a new form of Yoga has been introduced. Yoga may be 7,000 years old but it has dipped in and out of fashion.

Its endorsement by footballers Ryan Giggs and singer Lady Gaga, plus the recent support of actor Daniel Craig, made selling the idea to Rathbone teenagers much simpler!

Under the tutelage of actor, life-coach and teacher Beckie Hannah, young people have engaged completely with the idea of improving both mind and body.

Would-be dancer Charlotte Harrison’s connection with the Ashtanga brand (a modern take on traditional Indian Yoga) has been stunning.

A troubled early life left Charlotte (now 17) angry and in constant conflict with teachers. Yet Yoga made her calmer, fitter and healthier – having given up smoking and drinking!

Charlotte said:

“If I’d known some of the Yoga techniques I know now, I would’ve been able to cope better.”

Boxing, football, culinary and nutrition classes have also been utilised to improve the health of young people at Rathbone centres.

Aside from improving physical and mental wellbeing, these sessions have also taught young people new skills such as teamwork and importantly improved self-esteem and confidence – particularly amongst females.

As Beckie Hannah noted:

“Starting Yoga when you are a teenager is ideal because young people are still figuring out who they are and can be full of angst. Some live off energy drinks and lack the confidence to exercise because of their body shape.”

Peter Gibson is national spokesperson for the Rathbone youth charity. Learn more at www.rathboneuk.org

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