Not just about goals at Portman Road
In the second of his articles on the work of the ITFC Charitable Trust, Steven Russell looks at efforts to tackle two of the challenges of the modern world: exercising properly and eating healthily
LATE Tuesday afternoon and seven young people certainly aren’t deterred by the odd spit of rain and the threat of more to come from the heavy clouds in the darkening sky. They’re out under the lights on the practice pitch at Ipswich Town’s Portman Road stadium, dribbling footballs and dropping cards into coned-off areas – an activity that both helps them work up a sweat and makes learning about different food groups a bit more fun than sitting in a classroom and reading it from a book.
The group is well into an 11-week programme run by the ITFC Charitable Trust that aims to put healthy living at the top of the agenda for 12- to 16-year-olds who have sought a helping hand.
They come here once a week, after school, to talk about how they got on with their “homework” – targeted challenges to do with both physical activity and nutrition – to have a lesson about how to keep one’s body working well, and enjoy an hour or so of sport.
It might be rounders; it could be athletics. It might be something more novel.
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“I think it was last week it was raining,” says James Colchester, co-ordinator of the Activ8it plus project. “We went into the stadium and ran around the football pitch. Not a lot of students can say they’ve run around the stands at Portman Road! And I got them in turn to run up the steps, to make it into a relay.
“We also do things like kick-boxing – I have a coach come in and he gets them in a good sweat – and the previous week we had a yoga instructor. I try to offer different sports for them to try.”
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It’s also not simply a question of him telling his young charges to “Do as I say”. He, along with volunteers who have been on previous courses and come back to act as mentors to a fresh intake, pitch in with the physical activities.
James, who admits to a weakness for chocolate in general and Galaxy in particular, is also tackling his own challenge: to go 40 days without his favourite treat in the lead-up to Christmas.
“It’s tough!” he grins. “I play football on a Saturday and if I don’t play very well I just feel I want to go and eat rubbish. But if I can cut chocolate out for a month...”
James finds targets certainly motivate the young people he helps. Last week’s daily goals included drinking three bottles of water, doing 25 sit-ups, and completing 25 press-ups or squat-thrusts. A parent or guardian has to sign a form to confirm the goals have been achieved – something that takes the group closer to its end-of-course treat: a session of tenpin bowling that will likely be attended by an Ipswich Town player or two.
There’s no soft-pedalling. James might ask the rest of the group if they think someone’s idea of a self-set challenge is a fair one. If not, someone is bound to suggest making it harder!
“I can’t remember where I got the idea from for those challenge sheets, which I find are the things that work the best,” he says. “Actually, yes I can . . .
“It was when I wanted to join a gym. I wasn’t happy with my appearance – I was very skinny and had a late growth spurt – so I started writing down the days of the week and how many press-ups I did each day. I wanted to tone up a bit before I started at the gym, so I didn’t start on the lowest weights and felt more comfortable when I put a T-shirt and shorts on, and didn’t have really thin and tiny legs and arms! “I was challenging myself. If I didn’t do enough press-ups one day, I felt I should do more the next. I’m pretty sure that’s how I got the idea of a challenge sheet, and that’s what children respond to.
“If you give them a sheet to take home, the family are also actively involved and it motivates the child to get fitter during the week.”
The Tuesday weight management/healthy living sessions are the parts of the Activ8it plus project he finds most rewarding.
The sessions began last January and each course has involved up to 10 young people. There’s been a near-equal gender balance – “at first I thought I was going to get only males, because of the football link” – and most pupils have been in the 12-14 age bracket. Perhaps older teenagers have more going on in their lives, or might be less willing to take the plunge.
Some students ask to come after hearing about it through James’s work in schools (more about that later) while others might be referred by GPs, school nurses or by a child weight management team at a hospital.
Whatever route they’ve taken, he acknowledges that turning up on that first afternoon is a brave step for a young person, particularly as some have low self-esteem and confidence.
Common characteristics are insufficient exercise and the eating of too much of the wrong foods. But so, too, is a desire to do something about it.
“It’s a positive thing that they take ownership. In any case, one of my criteria for inclusion is I say that if a child is going on my course, they’ve got to be motivated to attend. They’ve got to participate to the best of their ability. If they don’t, there’s no point.”
As well as the physical activities – designed to be fun and non-threatening, and thus hoping to instil a lasting love of sport – there are the lessons on nutrition and health. Last week’s was about hydration. Part of it looked at sports drinks and the number of calories they contain – trying to steer youngsters away from the worst. One, says James, has 69g of sugar in it – roughly 17 teaspooons.
So how come professional footballers drink it? “Well, they actually drink the still version, which has got 17.5g in, and I tell the group the pros are playing football every single day and have got their matches, so they need the extra energy. If you’re just walking to and from school, it’s not a good drink to have.”
He has help from dietician Mary McDermott, who attends the first and last sessions of each healthy living course to measure each pupil’s body mass index – confidentially, of course – and discuss any issues.
He also runs a test in the first week, seeing how many shuttle-runs, step-ups, star jumps and sit-ups each person can do in 30 seconds. It’s repeated at the end of the course.
Of the initial batch of 10 students, five saw their BMI go down. The others stayed the same – though there was a widespread improvement in fitness levels. All eight of the second cohort, however, reduced their BMIs.
James regards the project as still in its infancy, and makes tweaks along the way with an eye to improving it, but is pleased both with results so far and the keenness of the youngsters.
“Once they get going, they’re really motivated. I’ll probably find a couple of students in the classroom at 4pm” – half an hour before the official “off” –“waiting for the session to start. I’m happy for them to come, if they want to use the computers or whatever.”
As well as improving health, the scheme also appears to boost confidence and self-esteem, through its sense of purpose and achievement.
Nor surprisingly, a good deal of banter flies between group members as they get to know each other. “A lot of students give it – and they can take it as well,” says James, grinning. “But the work is serious.”
Chloe Mills is a graduate of the second course, which started in the spring, and she’s back for more as a mentor of the current group – there to show the programme does work.
The 15-year-old says she came along wanting to get a bit trimmer and was a little daunted at first, not knowing what to expect, but quickly got into the swing of things.
“Before I came, I just really couldn’t be bothered with exercise,” she admits. “I’d just sit watching TV. But going there was something to do, so that made me think you could make it fun and realise I could do it outside school, and get friends to do it with me.”
Now, Chloe is particularly keen on swimming and roller-skating.
She says of the course’s demands: “It was all right to start with, because they were quite easy! As the weeks went on, the challenges got harder. Instead of just 10 star jumps, we had to do 10 star jumps, 25 sit-ups and 50 of something else.
“It wasn’t just exercise challenges; we had water challenges and food challenges as well, to change our diet and have more liquid. I found some of them easy and some quite hard, but I managed to do them all and I tried my best.”
The teenager, who goes to a high school in north-eastern Ipswich, says the pupils she’s mentoring are doing OK. “They just need a bit of encouragement! They always put them-selves down, and my job is to support them.
“If they’re trying to stop, I’ll say ‘Come on. Keep going!’ and I do it with them, so they can see that and think ‘She’s doing it, so I can do it as well.’”
James doesn’t let his mentors coast, either. “I’m now challenging her to do more than when she was here earlier in the year. They still have to work!”
n Web link: www.itfc-charitabletrust.org.uk