Developing healthy habits


What can pupils' attitudes towards how they eat and exercise tell us about the role schools play in promoting healthy habits? Surveys and research by the NFER reveal some interesting insights.

With the London Olympics just around the corner, and renewed calls from personalities like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Oliver for the government to do its bit to tackle childhood obesity, the state of our young people’s health is very much back on the agenda.

Most of us would agree that schools have an important role in helping young people learn to make healthy choices, and that physical health is an important part of providing the energy needed for learning. 

Analysis of data from the National Foundation for Educational Research’s (NFER) Attitude Surveys of more than 40,000 secondary school pupils and 14,000 parents reveals some valuable insights.

Girls giving up

The vast majority of young people exercise regularly, but when asked how often they exercise for at least an hour, almost one in six say they do this less than once a week. This figure changes dramatically with the age and gender of respondents. Among year 7s, only nine per cent of boys and 13 per cent of girls say they exercise for at least an hour less than once a week. By year 13, this figure doubles to 18 per cent among boys and a massive 42 per cent among girls.

Although the lack of exercise among older teenage girls may not be a surprise, what is more striking is that the decrease goes hand-in-hand with a drop in the number reporting they are encouraged to exercise by their school. More than 80 per cent of girls in year 7 agree that their schools encourage them to exercise, but this figure drops to around 60 per cent by year 10, and to less than half by year 13.

This indication that schools give less encouragement to older children to exercise is backed by parents. More than 80 per cent of parents of year 7 children (boys and girls) agree that the school encourages their child to exercise, but by year 10 this drops to around 70 per cent, and further still to below 60 per cent by year 13. This indicates that schools could do more to encourage their older students to exercise.

Desire for regular exercise

So is it fair to say that young people who do not exercise regularly are not interested in doing so? Not really. In fact, just under 40 per cent of those young people surveyed who are not getting regular exercise indicate that they would be interested in taking part in indoor or outdoor sports outside of PE lessons.

An additional seven per cent say they might be interested in such activities, but do not know enough about what is available. This suggests that providing more information about available opportunities to take part in sport and exercise in the local area, and offering a different range of fitness activities for children may be effective in encouraging regular exercise. 

This approach may be useful in addressing the apparent gender gap in young people’s attitudes to exercise. It is something reinforced by research at Loughborough University by the Institute of Youth Sport (Changing the Game for Girls, 2011) which suggests that despite statistics showing low levels of activity among girls, the overwhelming majority want to take part in physical exercise, and would participate with more enthusiasm if consulted about alternative forms of exercise both within PE and as part of extra-curricular activities. 

A useful toolkit has been produced by the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation to help you think through these issues and get more girls involved in PE and school sport (see further information).

Five-a-day and junk food

Less than a third of the young people surveyed report eating at least five pieces of fruit or veg most days. Instead, crisps, sweets or chocolate are more popular, with more than a third indicating that they eat these most days and almost a quarter report eating takeaway or fast food at least once a week.

While there is a strong correlation between the amount of fruit and veg young people eat (as well as their participation in exercise) and their agreement with the statement “I make choices that help me to keep healthy”, the association between the amount of crisps, sweets, chocolate, takeaways and fast food young people eat and this statement is much weaker. 

This suggests that although the message of eating five-a-day as part of a healthy lifestyle has been understood (if not universally enacted), the need to reduce the amount of junk food they eat has not been taken on board so clearly.

Although trying to get teenagers to ditch their chocolate or crisps habit may not be easy in practice, there is good evidence that school-based initiatives can help. An NFER evaluation of the Food for Life programme, for example, found that where meal times have been made more attractive to the school community (such as through improvements to the menu and the dining environment), there has been an increased uptake of school meals. This in turn may be associated with improvements in pupil nutrition as well as improved behaviour and attention in class. 

The NFER research (Food Growing Activities in Schools, 2011) found that, in particular, children’s involvement in food-growing activities is associated with increased fruit and vegetable consumption and better awareness of food taste and type, as well as contributing towards a less sedentary lifestyle.

At school and at home

Schools can clearly have a positive effect on the health of young people. This is seen from a significant association in our Attitude Surveys data between young people knowing they are encouraged to eat healthily and their actual diet.

Among young people who strongly agree that their school encourages them to eat healthy food, 43 per cent say they eat five pieces of fruit or veg most days. In contrast, among young people who disagree that their school encourages them to eat healthily, only around a quarter report eating five portions on most days.

However, parents also have a crucial role to play. Indeed one concern is parents leaving the issue of healthy eating entirely to the school; a recent NFER investigation in primary schools, for example, found that children’s diets were actually worse in schools where parents were more satisfied with the canteen. (Let Them Eat Pizza, 2012).

The Attitude Surveys specifically asked parents about areas where they may want more support from school and 42 per cent agreed that “schools should do more to help parents to teach their children about a healthy lifestyle”.

In more than one third of schools surveyed, the majority of parents agreed with this statement, indicating that many parents are open to receiving additional support in the area of healthy eating and that schools could play a part in providing this information. This is certainly borne out by our research, which suggests that where schools have involved parents in programmes designed to promote better understanding of food, it has helped to foster healthier habits at home. 

Healthy eating: what can we do?

  • Make a point of encouraging older students to exercise.

  • Offer a range of fitness activities outside of PE lessons.

  • Deliver activities more attractive to older girls.

  • Provide more local information on sport and exercise opportunities outside school.

  • Include school-based nutrition and food-growing initiatives to reinforce healthy lifestyle awareness.

  • Ensure school meal times are attractive to pupils.

  • Involve parents whenever possible on healthy eating and lifestyle initiatives.

Further information & resources



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