“For cardiovascular prevention it’s really important to get children moving and eating well from an early age,” said Erik Meijboom, professor of Congenital Cardiology at the University Hospital of Lausanne, Switzerland.
“Once they start liking exercise it becomes a routine part of daily activities which should remain with them for life.”
“The platform of football offers a tremendously effective population tool for getting kids active because it touches all levels of society,” said Patrick Gasser, senior manager for Football and Social Responsibility at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).
Childhood obesity represents the most common childhood health disorder in Europe, with 22 million European children (one in five) estimated to be overweight and obese, and the number calculated to be rising by 400,000 each year. Overweight children are estimated to be three to five times more likely to suffer a heart attack or a stroke before they reach the age of 65.
“The over presence of calories, the easy availability of fast food and the absence of physical activity are all combining to put children at risk of developing early cardiovascular disease,” said Meijboom.
Studies suggest that the emergence of atherosclerotic disease can occur early in life, with children displaying fatty streaks in their arteries, which can progress into plaque and narrowing of the arteries.
The factor which most deters parents from encouraging their children to exercise, said Meijboom, is the adverse publicity around sudden cardiac death (SCD). While it is accepted that exercise and intense physical activity through athletic participation increase the likelihood of SCD, these risks have been vastly over estimated.
Indeed a study undertaken by Meijboom for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2006, which reviewed 1101 cases of SCD that had occurred in athletes under 35 years between 1966 and 2004, found that 50% had congenital anatomical heart disease and cardiomyopathies and that 10% had early onset atherosclerotic heart disease.¹ “It’s evident that premature atherosclerotic disease is an important cause of sudden death in this age group and that children are much more likely to suffer from it if they’re obese and don’t take regular exercise,” said Meijboom.
Andy Smith, from the Manchester United Foundation, presented the “Something to Chew on Programme” which aims to get eight year olds in the Manchester area leading healthier life styles.
The project, which was started in September 2008, involves a six week programme of sessions, with topics including diet and health, food safety, consumer awareness, food preparation, being active and football fitness and body movement control. In the programme (which was devised by a teacher, nutritionist and football coach) children undertake practical sessions, like making a sandwich, where they are encouraged to try all sorts of different foods that they might not normally come across, such as avocado, salmon, and peppers. Lessons are all delivered by coaches wearing the Manchester United kit.
The project, which was developed in partnership with the Food’s Standards Agency (FSA) and Salford City Council, targeted 51 primary schools across Salford, Trafford and the wider Manchester area. “What we’re trying to do is use the brand of football as an engagement tool to pass on health messages to young people with the ultimate message that you need to have a good life style to be able to perform at the highest level,” explained Smith, an executive manager with Manchester United Foundation. “If these messages have the backing of the Manchester United brand they’re instantly perceived as worthwhile by children.”
Evaluation of the programme showed that it has had a significant impact on the children’s behaviour, with results showing after participation children were twice as likely to have had breakfast as they were beforehand, that 27% felt more positive about eating fruit and vegetables, that agility and balance was improved, and that children reported a positive impact on their self-confidence. “What hit me most was that results showed the programme wasn’t only reaching the children, but also their families, with 28% of behaviour in the home changing for the better,” said Smith.
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) are trying to motivate children to improve their diets with a cookbook “Eat for Goals” featuring 13 healthy recipes created by 13 famous male and female footballers from across Europe. The book, which has been produced in over eight European languages, targets children aged between 5 and 11 and their families, with recipes including Carles Puyol’s pasta with pesto and grilled vegetables, Frank Lampard’s spinach with fruit and nuts, Heurelho da Silva Gomes’ pasta and tropical mixed salad and Steven Gerrard’s crunchy sea bream with herbs.
“Our assumption is that these kids get plenty of exercise through playing football, but now we want to introduce the notion that a healthy life style also involves healthy eating. We want to widen their horizons and teach them to value vegetables, salad, fruit and drinks low in sugar,” explained Gasser, who is senior manager for Football and Social Responsibility at UEFA. “The assumption was that kids would be interested in cooking the favourite meal of soccer stars.”
A number of football teams in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have been using the Muuvit Adventure as part of their corporate social responsibility programme to promote healthy lifestyles in schools. First developed in Finland over 10 years ago, the Muuvit Adventure aims to get children moving through a reward scheme that takes them on a “virtual” class-room adventure. The children collect virtual kilometres which are awarded for exercise undertaken both in and out of school, with each child issued a card that allows them to track physical activity throughout the day. Once the target number of kilometres has been achieved the class can decide where to “travel” online. “The idea is that the more they move, the more they see and the more exciting it gets,” said Mika Merikanto, director of international programmes at Muuvit, adding that organisations such as the World Heart Federation (WHF) and UEFA have also been using the adventure.
The adventure, he added, contains educational games and wide range of information regarding different countries. Healthy lifestyle is integrated into the Muuvit Adventure with each destination providing sports and nutrition tips to the class, with content from UEFA’s “Eat for Goals” cook book (see above) covered in the adventure.
Teachers also are given the flexibility to integrate the adventure into classes on physical education, data processing, maths, geography, biology and foreign languages. Schools that are really active have the chance to win prizes, such as having a famous footballer give a sport’s class.
“What’s been really important is that the physical activity isn’t just about sport, but all aspects of exercise, and it’s really vital that this continues after school. It doesn’t matter if the kids play football, or basket-ball or just go out for a walk with the dog,” said Merikanto.
A study by the University of Helsinki in 2006 showed that the goal of two hours of activity a day was achieved in 88% of children who had participated in the Muvvit Programme in Finland. “One of the most interesting findings was that it was the level of activity in passive kids that got raised most,” said Merikanto.
The adventure can also be used to build team spirit in class rooms. “In schools where there are lots of children from immigrant families we’ve found that it can really help understanding to get the class to travel to their countries of origin,” said Merikanto.
The scheme is currently aimed at children aged between 6 and 12 years, with plans to open it up to older children. “The biggest challenge is to persuade teachers to take on what they perceive as extra workload. But once they appreciate how much Muuvit can enrich their lessons they’re pretty convinced,” said Merikanto.
The Muuvit Adventure has already been launched in Austria, Switzerland and Germany, with an English language version scheduled to be launched on World Heart Day – 29th September.