Coppermile - an antidote to childhood obesity

“Kids are getting fatter because we sold off all the playing fields” is a typical headline whenever the media focuses on the obesity time bomb where one in three children in London are overweight or obese. Unfortunately, the argument usually stops there and no one ever joins the dots and explains how they can make our kids healthier and I’m not just talking about the ones who are already playing organised sport. So I would like to describe how London Playing Fields Foundation, whose mantra is playing fields improve lives, has tackled the issue with an innovative partnership involving a local primary school. However, we cannot take credit for the idea which began Scotland in 2012, the year in which the Olympic Games came to our shores. 

They say that simplicity is genius. And often, as in the case of The Daily Mile, the best ideas are almost blindingly obvious. Step forward the charismatic Elaine Wylie former Head Teacher of St Ninians Primary School in Sterling who found that by encouraging primary school pupils to run for 15 minutes a day she helped to reduce obesity, improve mental and physical health and increase the pupils’ capacity to concentrate and learn. Her initiative has now inspired hundreds of schools nationwide to follow suit and to deliver their version of the Daily Mile.

Having been captivated by one of Elaine’s presentations, I thought that this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. So we teamed up with Coppermill Primary School and offered Head Teacher Figen Bektaşoğlu the chance for her pupils to run round a specially prepared 340 yard track marked out on our adjacent field at Douglas Eyre Sports Centre in Walthamstow. She took very little persuading and the Coppermile Project was born. Inspired by the St Ninians’ example we had a clear idea of what success looked like and so recruited Fitmedia Fitness to measure it over the pilot period. Pupils were taken out of their normal lessons by their class teacher and, dressed in their uniform and trainers, walked, jogged and ran for a total of 15 minutes. Once the distance travelled had been logged the children returned to class all within 25 minutes.

As expected at the end of the 12 week pilot period there were improvements in physical fitness. The number of pupils below the cut off point for good health reduced by 67% and those who were already decent runners saw their performance improve significantly. Surprisingly there was a very positive and enthusiastic reaction from pupils who would not normally be described as sporty or athletic. In fact, as Elaine predicted, a Coppermile camaraderie developed as the stronger runners typically encouraged their less able peers to keep going. This phenomenon probably contributed to the general increase in self-esteem and feeling of well-being.

The Head Teacher noted that during the project those pupils who had previously been disruptive in the classroom and been sent to the Assistant Head had ceased this behaviour. She also reported that pupils were more focused in class and more resilient when completing tasks and she believes that the project also contributed to excellent academic outcomes. During SATs week all Year 6 pupils completed the Coppermile before sitting each test and the results were much better than anticipated and in fact significantly exceeded borough and national averages.

In the words of the Head Teacher Figen Bektaşoğlu:

“The project definitely created a culture of ownership of improving our own health and well-being and it’s not difficult to do and that everyone and anyone can take part. Every child and adult can do this and it’s not about winning or competition but getting active and healthy. Staff are on board because it is easy to implement, there is no preparation involved and it is fun and enjoyable as well as impacting positively on their students’ attitudes. It also creates a culture of support, encouragement and teamwork that is based on individual improvement”.

The introduction of a daily period of exercise, where pupils can perform at their own level and with no special clothing or equipment requirements, shows how easy it is to overcome the traditional barriers to participation in physical activity. As we have seen once the wider benefits of exercise become obvious to the individual, their lives take a turn for the better in health, social and aspirational terms.

And this is how the protection and effective use of playing fields can create a healthier, happier and more active nation.

The full evaluation report is available here:

Evaluation Report