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Two hours physical exercise? Fine – but only for those who can!

Posted Aug 11 2012 12:24pm

All children to do two hours of physical exercise per week – Cameron’s latest wizard wheeze – is a dangerous idea – especially that “all” bit.

Why? Simple, not all children are physically capable of exercise because of illness/ disability. Amend “all” to” all those who are capable” and it’ll save a lot of kids a lot of grief – I know, I was such a kid.

I had severe asthma and worse bronchiectasis after my lungs were trashed, at age 2, by simultaneous measles and whooping cough.

I could do pretty much anything other kids could do – just at my own pace, with breaks for coughing til I puked – but at school, it was a constant, and dangerously wearing, battle to make a succession of head teachers and gym teachers grasp that very basic fact.**

**I lost at least a third of all my schooling to illness – you’d think that this would have given the bastards a clue, but no – the idea that exercise was universally beneficial was too deeply ingrained, as it probably is with Cameron (so how come he looks like a pig in a suit?).

In my teens I discovered that cycling fitted my abilities nicely, and that enabled me, both before and after school, run a couple of paper rounds. Cue more confrontation with muscle-bound fuckwits – if you can ride a bike, why can’t you run and jump, play football and cricket like everyone else? Aarrrrgh!!!

Well, as for cricket and football, I hated both games from the bottom of my heart, and not just because I couldn’t play – but because I had no desire to and, to this day I feel that any game involving a ball is a serious waste of human endeavour.

Once I left school, aimless cycling grew into cycle touring, not fast, obviously, but I had considerable endurance. Then I became a biker, and it wasn’t until my 30s that I developed an urge to take up walking seriously. I’d been car-camping and walking for a couple of years, when I picked up the first-ever edition of The Great Outdoors magazine at a camping exhibition at Belle Vue, Manchester, minutes away from where I used to live as a child, in Ardwick.

Anyway, in the mag was an article by a guy who’d taken up something I’d never heard off, but which seemed tailor-made for my abilities – backpacking – after a coronary. It struck me as reckless, but he’d survived and I thought, if he can do that, so can I. So I kitted myself out with the requisite equipment, lightweight tent (a Saunders Fellpine if any backpackers are reading this), a Black’s Icelandic down sleeping bag (first trip it damned near killed me, I didn’t know I was allergic to down!), but damn, it was warm, even in midwinter at Edale), and a Karrimor pack frame and pack (this was in the days of external-framed backpacks, and I was never convinced phasing them out in favour of internally – framed was an improvement. And I gathered together all the rest of the bits and bobs, and headed for the hills.

The first thing I realised that backpacking hurts – even now, with much lighter kit, that still surprises newbies – but the human body simply isn’t designed to carry a heavy backpack, which greatly increases the load on spine, hips, knees and feet, not to mention shoulders (in 1972, packed for 2 weeks in the Peak District, and with a day’s water, my pack weighed 45lb (closer to 60 in the winter).

The important thing, though, was that I could do it – at my own pace. I almost always walked solo, the experience is so much more intense than walking in a group and, of course, there’s no arguing about the way to go, or hanging around waiting for the slow to catch up (and if you are slow, you never get a rest, because as soon as you catch up, they’re off again!). And I chose my routes, as much as possible, to avoid steep or long ascents.

And this, boys and girls, is something most muscles-for-brains gym teachers can’t grasp – exercise can take many forms, it doesn’t have to be formalised in a gym, or in frantic bloody team games – broaden the prospectus, offer sick and disabled kids something they can do – use a little imagination, ffs!

As the decade clicked over into the 80s, I joined the Ramblers’ Association, where I quickly gained a reputation as a hard walker.

It wasn’t entirely deserved, but what I did have was, as I’ve said, stamina,** greatly enhanced by 8 years of backpacking. I couldn’t walk fast, but I could maintain my pace all day, without stopping, if I had to. You can clock up a lot of miles like that. And, backpacking, I also developed a stoicism which has served me well over the past 27 years.

**Because I worked at it – I walked whenever possible, including walking 4 miles each way to work every day, regardless of the weather, and often carrying 30lb of books in a backpack if I had a long walk coming up (if I didn’t get up early enough, I’d cycle in, or get out my Honda), and if I wasn’t rambling at the weekend, I’d be backpacking – I was, by any measure superbly fit. Then in 1983, I was struck by lightning, by autumn 1985 I’d gone down with ME (though I still think the main problem was the lightning strike, as detailed here ). And the rest, as regular readers will know, is history – it’s been too well-documented elsewhere to bear rehashing here.

So, what’s the point of this, I hear you ask? It’s very, very, simple – Cameron please note – and it’s that sick and disabled kids should NOT be bullied, cajoled, or forced to participate in organised exercise, or team sports (character-building my arse!), or anything else they, or their doctors, feel is physically beyond them. At best compulsion is likely to be physically harmful, at worst it will also be hugely, and lastingly,  psychologically damaging.

Leave them alone. Give them extra lessons, let them grow intellectually instead – which is what eventually happened to me, and – happily – they were English lessons. By the time I was 14 I was getting 98% on old GCE English O-level papers, and running the school library. I also had the world’s best English teacher of that or any other generation – I’m convinced of that (a long time later I trained and worked as an adult literacy tutor, to try to give a little back).

But, the most important thing, about this two hours exercise a week, is that there must be no element of compulsion.

If the sick/disabled kids have the gumption, they’ll find their own way, as I did, if not, what the hell? Better a tad underdeveloped physically than the burden of psychological damage that will blight the rest of their lives.


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