Students Staff

03 September 2015

Isn’t it time we knew more about our children’s health than their weight?

boys running

When secondary schools across the country welcome their new batch of pupils, they already know their literacy and numeracy abilities thanks to extensive primary school testing.

What they won’t probably know, however, is how physically fit their new Year 7 pupils are.

A leading sports scientist is now joining recent calls for schools to know more about the fitness and physical development of their pupils.

“When are we as a nation going to wake up to the fact that our children’s falling fitness levels today will lead to a potential health crisis in the future?,” said Dr Gavin Sandercock, Director of the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex.

This follows a recent report from UK Active about fitness testing in schools, including a call from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson to shift the focus on child health away from just their weight. The report was based in part on three studies showing falls in English children’s fitness.

Researchers at Essex, led by Dr Sandercock, recently published a fourth study showing English children’s fitness is declining faster than ever.

New findings, just published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, show the extent of the problem of low fitness in a sample of more than 6,000 English 10-16-year-olds. The study also shows that concerns about the over-emphasis on BMI measures are well founded and may give a misleading impression of children’s health.

Year 7 pupils starting secondary school this month will have been weighed and measured twice (at the start and the end of primary school) and more than one in three parents will have received a letter telling them their child is overweight or obese.

However, using the internationally agreed criteria, the researchers found that only 6% of children were obese and not the 20% figure so often reported. While 20% of children had a BMI considered overweight – most recent research suggests that people with a BMI considered overweight are amongst the healthiest.

“More importantly a single measure of BMI tells us almost nothing about someone’s health unless we account for how fit and active the person is,” explained Dr Sandercock.

“Misinterpreting single BMI measurements is doing two things – first it is causing unnecessary worry for thousands of parents of perfectly healthy children. More worryingly, equating weight with health is falsely suggesting to thousands of parents that their children must be healthy because they have a normal BMI. Combining BMI measures and our fitness test data tells a very different story.”

The researchers found that 20% of obese children they tested still had good cardiorespiratory fitness and more than half of children with a BMI considered “overweight” were physically fit.

On the other side of the scale, thin does not mean fit or healthy as the researchers found that one in three children who had normal BMI values, were unfit.

Dr Sandercock added: “This not only means there are three times more children who are unfit than there are obese but it means that 10-15% of parents have had letters telling them their child is ‘healthy’ based on BMI when, in fact, they have a three times higher risk of future ill health due to poor fitness.”

Previous calls for fitness testing have typically focused on running tests which favour children with lower BMI. “Fitness is multi-dimensional, including strength and power as well as stamina,” added Dr Sandercock. “Using a combination of muscular fitness tests as well as measuring cardiorespiratory fitness allows children of different shapes and sizes to demonstrate their physical abilities, just as playing different sports does.”

When the researchers combined power and strength with cardiorespiratory fitness in a measure of “overall fitness” there was no association with BMI. 30% of normal weight children had poor overall fitness (30%) and this was exactly the same number in children classed as overweight or obese.

“The only group who fared any worse on our overall fitness score were children who were underweight. About the same number of children we measured were underweight as were obese children – underweight children were much weaker and less fit overall than any other group.”

As well as introducing fitness assessments in schools Dr Sandercock would like to go further to see measurements of children’s ‘physical literacy’.

“In younger children this would include assessing fundamental movement skills such as: running, hopping, throwing, catching and jumping and would ideally be performed at each educational key stage just as we routinely do for numeracy and literacy.”


Note to editors
For more information or to interview Dr Gavin Sandercock please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400 or email


...more news releases