Physical activity crisis? Why not be more like Uganda and Mozambique?

A new study on “Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity” has been published in a journal. It continues to confirm what many of us understand already, high income countries tend to have high rates of physical inactivity. Low income countries tend to have low rates of inactivity.

This BBC article pointed out that two of the most active countries are Uganda and Mozambique. Another BBC article explored the Uganda situation in a bit more detail. It asked “So what is Uganda getting right? … People in rural Uganda, where most of the population lives, are very active on their farms, says the BBC’s Patience Atuhaire. But, she says, in urban areas people are becoming more sedentary, especially as they get wealthier.” Evocative imagery accompanies the news item:

farmerbikes road

All of this leads me to ask three awkward, but necessary questions:

  1. Why have I never seen these countries used as positive templates for physical activity?
  2. Might it be something to do with current life expectancy in these countries? Uganda’s average life span is about 59 years. Mozambique’s current average is close to 55 years. [To contrast, Monaco is about 89.5 years, Japan is about 85 years, and Sweden is about 82.5 years].
  3. So, to increase life expectancy, would it be reasonable to encourage highly urbanized living, even if it means decreasing population PA rates in these areas?


Joe Piggin

PS: The political nature of this issue (how people should be organised in society and what they should do), does remind me  of something I wrote 11 years ago, available here. I critiqued the strange New Zealand policy of aiming to be “the most active country in the world”. Of course not only did New Zealand never have a chance at the title, but also the goal itself is morally problematic. The implicit rationale of trying to be more active than another country is that you want another country to be less active, and therefore, less “healthy” than your own. This, I argue in academic parlance, is crazy.

Physical activity risks at school. What exactly is cotton wool?

Warnings about risk are moral endeavors. Agendas which aim to minimize risk involve (usually implicit) ideas about human safety, welfare and security. But when people perceive the risk-minimization agenda is being taken too far, such as attempting to minimize risk in school settings, the reaction often contain claims of “nanny state” and “cotton wool”. But a recent Australian news report shows that everything we think about raising “tough”, “resilient” children might be a sham. I recommend reading the link above and then reading the rest of this critique … at your own risk.

The fascinating thing about this article is that despite the “pro-risk narrative” in the title, this narrative is subtly subverted through various disclaimers and imagery. The end result is that far from being a place where children “stare down risk”, the schools presented in the article are places where risk is continuously managed through numerous physical structures and rules. Here are some Socratic questions:

  1. What is the point of the article?
    The article title is: “The anti-cottonwool schools where kids stare down risk in favour of nature play.” Look at the rhetoric here. Schools are positioned as resisting cotton wool and the children are actively staring down risk. Big claims for sure, but they are not necessarily borne out by the evidence.
  2. What activities are now promoted by the schools?
    The article suggests children can now “… race around on rollerblades, fly off ramps in crates and slide down trees.” This sounds fine, but it leads to another question …
  3. Are there any rules at all?
    Yes, actually, there are still plenty of rules:
    Helmets are compulsory
    Signed permission is essential
    Wheeled activities appear to be on a one way track
    Trampolines are fully enclosed with side netting
    No more than 2 children can be on the trampoline at any time
    No stacking milk crates
    No walking on the large wooden spools
    No tying rope to yourself
    Sun hats and shoes appear compulsory
  4. What does the play look like?
    The imagery in the article shows that far from being “free” play, the activities remain regulated with regard to risk reduction. For example, a claim that “Students at West Greenwood Primary School get knocked down, but they get up again” is accompanied by a image of someone falling off a sled onto apparently soft grass. The wheeled activities require helmets and are one way travel.
    Neither the trampolining nor the “ramp” appear to be particularly places of great risk. If indeed activities such as these have been banned before then I would agree with one of the teachers in the article that things have gone too far if indeed these activities were removed.
  5. What is the result of all this supposed risky play?
    Well, the claim that injury complaints have reduced at one school should really provoke some thoughts. Is it that these children are being injured to the same extent but not complaining? Or impossibly, are they being injured less often despite riskier play? If it is the latter, one might argue this new play is still not risky enough! We don’t learn this from the article but it would be nice to know!

    Joe Piggin