“Children have to own the problem. It has to be theirs, and then they have to be able to do something about it. You have to empower them.”
Elaine Wyllie dives into how to combat childhood obesity through daily exercise. She talks about how exercise contributes to children’s brain development, why it's so important for children to establish sustainable wellness habits from an early age, and how institutions can overcome social inequalities to make exercise accessible for all children. Tune in to find out why we should encourage childhood wellness through sustainable exercise!
Elaine Wyllie is the founder of The Daily Mile, an organization that aims to improve the physical, emotional, and social health and wellbeing of all people.
Shireen: In this Yumlish podcast episode, Elaine Wiley dives into how to combat childhood obesity through daily exercise. She talks about how exercise contributes to children's brain development, why it's so important for children to establish sustainable wellness habits from an early age, and how institutions can overcome social inequalities to make exercise accessible for all. Tune in to find out why we should encourage childhood wellness.
Podcasting from Dallas, Texas. I am Shireen and this is the Yumlish podcast. Yumlish is working to empower you, to take charge of your health through diet and exercise and reduce the risk of chronic conditions like type two diabetes and heart disease. We hope to share a unique perspective and a culturally relevant approach to managing these chronic conditions with you each week.
Elaine Wiley was principal of St. Ninians Primary School in Stirling when she was told by a volunteer in the school that the children were not fit. She created what is called the daily mile, which is now improving the health of over 3 million children in schools across the world. Welcome, Elaine!
Elaine: Thank you, lovely being here!
Shireen: Pleasure having you on. So tell us a little bit more about what got you interested in advocacy and then actually tell us a little bit more about what The Daily Mile is.
Elaine: So I got interested because the volunteer in the school said the children weren’t fit and I checked with the PE teacher and she confirmed that most of them were exhausted by the warmup in PE.
And so I asked a class of children to run in the field as a part of their warm up in PE and they couldn't do it. Only a handful were able to do it without stopping in and they were exhausted. And so I asked them and their teacher, “how did they fancy going out for 15 minutes each day and building up their fitness by trying to run around the field?” and they took ownership of the problem. They knew they hadn't done well. They wanted to do well. They wanted to be able to run. They agreed and I expected very little from it, but the transformational health of the children were amazing in the first few days, the mental health, and very quickly they became fit enough in less than four weeks to run around the field. And in those 15 minutes, it turned out that they were averaging a mile a day. And so the daily mie was born.
Shireen: How do people currently think about exercise for school-aged children and what barriers really exist and what areas need to be improved there?
Elaine: Most people think of sport and PE when they think of exercise for school-aged children, but within these that are many barriers. People tend to think of provision, tuition being provided for children, but actually what The Daily Mile does, is it flips and it becomes children being empowered to look after that it will improve health, self care.
So the barriers are currently our resources kit, equipment failure, lack of time, competition for children who can't compete or don't want to compete, lack of engagement and emphasis and skills, which most children will never use or need.
And so what we need is an emphasis on meeting the needs of childhood – what children want to do. So they want fun. They like to be outside in the fresh air, a sense of freedom. And they need ownership and it needs to be them all, every single one. So whatever that age, ability or circumstances, every child, every day, The Daily Mile might be simple, it's available for them all and there's no kit, equipment, or money involved.
Shireen: And I love that. And I think the biggest thing that I'm taking over here is that it is incredibly simple. So, this is not an app on your phone or some technological advancement or anything like that. It is as simple as getting them out, getting them to, you know, run in this case and, and, you know, create this thing that's called The Daily Mile, but it is super simple and it doesn't take much in terms of, you know, we need this, that, or the other, you really need a ground where they're able to do that.
So I like how incredibly easy it is. How can schools and educators really motivate children to establish healthy relationships not only in exercise, but also with food?
Elaine: I mean, it has to come from the children. They have to want it, and they have to be able to see the benefits for themselves and feel the benefits. The funny thing is, I think it's fair enough for a teacher to ask the children to run around the field and see if they can do it. Because that was the moment when they took ownership and knew they couldn't and wanted to sort it. So children have to own the problem. It has to be theirs, and then they have to be able to do something about it. You have to empower them.
So you have to abolish hopelessness and give them a fighting chance. And many children feel that they have no chance. Once they've done The Daily Mile and they discover that in a fit self, they start to think, you know, I can access things, you know, I can, I'm better at sport. I'm better than you, better than basic PE. And they begin to see the point of looking after their health. And I know that because we had 420 children in the school and that's what happened to them. If they think we've got a chance of achieving something, then it really means a lot to them. And I think The Daily Mile helps them with that success breeds success. They then have a look at having a healthy diet and I think, you know, wanting to make it happen is really important for them.
Shireen: Why is it so important to establish healthy wellness patterns at a young age? And just so we understand, what age was the group you were working with?
Elaine: So we started with primary school children, elementary school children, ages four upwards, but honestly, kindergarten joined in.
So these were children, the age of two, and they could easily do the mile in 15 minutes, then usually they loved it. So it's absolutely vital to normalize and establish healthy wellness parts of school. Especially if children or parents haven't got the ability to provide that for their children at home. If they can't be the sort of role model that we would like, and this is in so many parents, who want to, but can't, So we need to normalize healthy habits and clear our children everyday that in the kindergartens, in the elementary schools.
I had a mentor, a visitor from Scotland, who came to the school and looked on in amazement as we had 11 year old girls running around the field. They don't only run at their own pace. So they do a bit of walking and they can be in a wheelchair. That's cool. But this was ever said, these children think it's normal to run. And we know that it's not, you never see 11-year old girls running. And so this gives them the chance. This gives children the opportunity to think that I believe that it's normal to run. If you think that children who do the Daily Mile start at the age of two or three, ideally, that's when you get them. And they do all the way through elementary school that changes their body composition.
Not just now, but forever. And the way they feel about it, the need to pester the teacher to see, can we do ideally has to come from within. It can't be imposed. They need to want it definitely and it needs to be fun. So that's really important for children. I don't know if you've noticed, but children won't do what they don't want to do, but they will do something that they enjoy. And this was essentially invented by children. And that first month they made it into The Daily. And so they want to do it, and that's absolutely critical.
Shireen: So let's tie this into childhood obesity for a quick second. How can daily physical activity really help combat childhood obesity?
Elaine: That's a really good question because a lot of people will see it can't. However, the universities are studyng then combined to study and do the first major study of the daily mile on a randomized control trial. They measured for fat in the children's skin folds. So it wasn't a BMI, which is not a good measure for growing children.
And what was found was for children who do it daily lose 4% of the fat in their skin folds after seven months, they're at population level level. That's huge. What we don't know is when did they lose that? Did they lose it in the first couple of months? Did it take seven months? We don't know what would happen if it was seven years, not seven months.
Now we only have an inkling of that because the universities also looked at our stats for obesity and or overweight children. And on every single measure, there were below and in many cases, significantly below the Scottish average, but during the daily mile per three years, when these measures were taken, so.
Though we can put a hand on our heart and see the Daily Mile caused this, we kind of know it actually did, but we have no baseline measure. Obviously diet is absolutely crucial, but nevertheless, these children lost 4% of the excess fat in their skin folds. Therefore, the only other evidence I've got for it is that Scotland's chief medical officer came to the school and then came back because she liked it so much. And she said, our children look healthy and resilient. And I think it does. I think it will. And I think if children had the chance to do the Daily Mile at their own pace, they would become healthier.
Shireen: So then Elaine, tell us a little bit more about what is really sustainable and accessible wellness and why is that important?
Elaine: Sustainable and accessible are two really important words. What's the point? If it's not sustainable, if it's, if it's a gimmick, if it lasts for a few months, that's no good. It has to be for life. So. I think that something which happens with our children, either in kindergartens or in elementary schools is really important.
It really needs to be for everybody, no child left behind. So whatever the age, ability or circumstances, they all must do it. I think that you picked up on the simplicity. Simplicity is really vital. Opening the door and taking the children out into almost all weather where there's no equipment, no kit, just themselves, the outdoors, the teacher, the community of the children that is so important and it makes it sustainable. If there's no skills involved in it for the teacher, apart from connecting with the children and caring for them. So there's no training which disappears with a staff member. I think for schools and nurseries the daily mile takes only 15 minutes a day and it fits right in. You don't even really need to time table it. It usually falls into place. I think that something that also facilitated it is that it was invented by the children.
Shireen: Then let's talk a little bit about socioeconomic status now. I understand things are different in Scotland versus here in the United States, but how do socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity really impact a child's access to exercise and health education?
Elaine: We determined that access to these things are what matters when it comes to access. I know that you have poverty in the United States. So do we in Scotland. Nearly 30% of our children live in poverty. It's simple. It's simple. If you are poor, you have much less access, that's generalizing, but it's essentially true. I suppose it can be rolled up into the word poverty. So if you look for transport and you can't go to the sports club, you can't go to the football game. No money, no kit, no equipment, no space at home, lack of home support and not because the family doesn't want to support you, but because they don't have the resources. If there's no facilities in your community, if you yourself, as a child have caring responsibilities or there are drugs in your family or crime or whatever these things against you.
So the idea that sports that are paid for and the children have to get to can be the answer is just more the case. The Daily Milel is the uptake rate and the daily mileage schools in England is as high or higher in areas of deprivation than it is in areas where they are less deprived.. And that sort of significant, absolutely significant. We cannot possibly overcome the difficulties these children have if they don't have something which schools can do, which is simple and free.
Shireen: And why do you think that is? I think it’s interesting that there's an uptick in more of the lower socioeconomic, why do you think that is?
Elaine: I think that all children benefit. More affluent areas do tick out and at the same level. The surprise is that most interventions do not reach the poor children. And this does that. You don't need facilities or playing fields. You just need a bit of space. You don't need anything. Fancy. I think it's the simplicity.
And I think the children like it and they will do it for their children. So they see another thing is that, you know, people, people come to school all the time with gimmicks or with things. They want the schools to do all of this. So the school has to be a kind of nuclear bunker with a cover on it, to stop stuff coming at them all the time, wanting money. If you give us this money, we’ll do that for you.
There's no money involved. That must, that must make a big difference to areas of deprivation. We can spend the money on other things. So quite often in England, there's something called the people's premium. School’s get I think it's about 18,000 pounds to spend on sport. So they get all sorts of inquiries from people wanting some of those items. We say, we're not interested. We just want to help children within that very fortunate position. So. The fact that it's free, the children enjoy all these things combined, and anybody can do it.
Shireen: And I loved in your own background, Elaine, you were the principal of the school, a volunteer comes in, tells you that, Hey, there's a problem here. One you're listening to a volunteer, which is amazing, right? So it's not even, so it shows me that you're not sort of distancing yourself from your staff. You're very, very plugged in, right. And then you sort of took it on yourself to say, huh, let's investigate this and you go off and you're looking at you saying, all right, well there, this is not good. Something needs to be done here. And instead of like very many principals fighting for resources, we need this, or we need that equipment. You're like, how can I do this? And I'm of course speaking for you, but how can I really do this in a low cost way? That is quick, simple, easy, and that I have buy-in for the kids. So I love how simple you made it and how fun you made it.
Do you have any recommendations for how institutions, communities, other principals out there listening to this podcast can more effectively implement public health interventions?
Elaine: I think that they need to believe that they have responsibility for the solution. And at first I'm looking at this a long time ago, nearly 10 years ago. And I'm thinking, we were a sporty school. We were successful in competitions and so on. So I kind of thought, so I was intrigued. But I was really bothered when I saw the children, you know, so unfit. So I think that is the starting point. Recognizing that there is a problem and that you can do something about it. And that's a really important reason for the health and wellbeing of children because if they aren’thealthy and well and happy and settled in, they don’t learn. So it is in the interest of principles to improve the health and wellbeing of the children, because it will improve a ton.
We have lots of evidence. I've gone to the evidence of how the Daily Mile increases focus and concentration in class, a huge deal. If you can't sell it to a principal on the idea that the children are happier and healthier and fitter, they will like the idea that attainment and results improve because the children are more focused. And in a sense that you're meeting, meeting the children's needs, children need to learn, they need to be outside. Sometimes they can’t concentrate for long blocks at a time. So I would say to a principal, you know, give the Daily Mile a proper try. Look at the website and at the core principles, don't try to adapt it, just do it the same way we did it. It hasn't changed in nearly 10 years. So it must be working. I would say keep it simple. And I would see that. I don't know if you have a saying in the states,
I didn't invent it. Instead of imposing a solution and looking back, you know, I didn't mean all this. It happened by chance. You know, the fact that I took the children, I had the time to sort it out. I would say nothing about us without us. In other words, total involvement of the children and indeed their families or whatever the staff and the way forward is really.
Shireen: I love that. I absolutely love it. With that, Elaine, you know, you mentioned something in passing. I do want to, I do want to touch on it just really, really quickly, You mentioned the physical outcome. So we talked about the fat in the skin fOLDS as a physical indicator, and you quickly touched on concentration and focus. Do you have anything to share around that?
Elaine: Again, University of Sydney and Edinburgh and other universities have looked at cognition. Short-term memory recall, And I'm just trying to remember, because I don't have it in front of me, but it's all pointing in the one direction, There was a piece of research which looked at three groups of children and it was citizen science and it was I think it was 900 children divided into three groups across the country. And a third of them went out and did nothing, just sat around at playtime. A third did tests to exhaustion, you know, running to exhaustion. And the final group did the Daily Mile. And then they came in and they tested themselves on videos, nearly in cognition, tests on every test, the daily Mile group did the best., I couldn't have predicted that. And I said I didn't know that when we invented it But there's other pieces of research on how it improves concentration. There are teachers and children who are losing focus. They needed to get out and get some fresh air. There’s quite a lot of research on our website.
Shireen: Love that. And so with that thought, how can our listeners connect with you and learn more about your work?
Elaine: So on our website, which is www.thedailymile.co.uk, but it's going global. So we're going to get one that fits all countries. Soon. We have Facebook, we have Twitter and Instagram accounts that they can follow.
I love it with that. I mean, it's such a pleasure having you on, I love the simplicity of what you're doing the entire month of September for us is childhood obesity awareness. And I feel this lines up so perfectly to bring attention to something again, that is incredibly easy to adapt. Nothing is required from a budgetary standpoint or, you know, monetary wise, but it's incredibly easy and it only takes about 15 minutes, so it's not pulling away from, from anything else. It has a huge impact in that sustainable way. So I am certainly sold. I wish there were things like that when I was in school,
Thank you so much for your time. Really, really appreciate it.
Elaine: Thank you so much.
Shireen: Lovely. To our listeners out there, head over to our social media and tell us what is your favorite way to move your body? We will see you there after this episode.
Thank you Elaine.
Shireen: Thank you for listening to the Yumlish Podcast. Make sure to follow us on social media @Yumlish_ on Instagram and Twitter and @Yumlish on Facebook and LinkedIn. For tips about managing your diabetes and other chronic conditions and to chat and connect with us about your journey and perspectives. You can also visit our website Yumlish.com for more recipes advice and to get involved with all of the exciting opportunities Yumlish has to offer. If you like this week's show, make sure to subscribe so you can hear more from us every time we post. Thank you again, and we'll see you next time. Remember your health always comes first. Stay well.
This episode is part of our series dedicated to national childhood obesity month for the month of September. With this episode and the rest in the series, we hope to increase awareness around childhood obesity and connect you with experts to help you better prevent childhood obesity and support related initiatives.