Jumping for Health in Nairobi
Vanita and her classmates stream out of the school gates at the end of the day. Brightly coloured uniforms stream through the Kasarani Mwiki neighbourhood in Nairobi, moving in all directions through this north-eastern residential neighbourhood. Today is different. Vanita is clutching her ‘Fitness Fun Day’ report card. Her school doesn’t do much sport — parents and teachers agree that passing public examinations is a priority, and anyway they don’t have much space for sport or play — so the ‘Fitness Fun Day’ was particularly exciting.
Vanita’s report card tells her that being 150cms tall and weighing just over 57kgs, her Body Mass Index (BMI) is slightly outside of the healthy range. The report records different measures of her fitness too: her handgrip strength for example, which tests her muscles. It shows her running speed; her flexibility, agility, and co-ordination; and, her favourite, long jump. She is disappointed. She only jumped 100cm, when the average for girls of her age (11) is between 105 and 158cm. She had hoped to impress the student researchers from Kenyatta University who tested the class and compiled individual report cards for the teacher to give to pupils. She will take it home and discuss with her mother how to improve her scores.
Five hours and 400km north of Nairobi, Aisir leaves Migwani Junior School in rural Kitui county. It’s a really hot day, but Aisir happily skips his way home along the dusty track. He and his PE teacher, Mrs Wachira, talked to researchers from Kenyatta University today about the ‘Fitness Fun Day they took part in. It was a really fun day of trying out new things and doing your best in the physical tasks alongside your friends. Some cool equipment too, like wearing a space-age watch. Aisir has some really nice results on his report card to share with his dad. He can long jump 152cm which is 20 cm further than expected for his body height. Impressive. Aisir loves playing football and Mrs Wachira provides as much opportunity as possible for boys and girls to play football and other games. She knows that activity boosts the immune system and allows children to release excess energy which can help them settle and learn in class. And Aisir thinks it’s just great to kick a ball around at break time: a real change of pace from the classroom.
Headteachers in both schools have been given a report card too. This compiles the average scores of all pupils, making it easy to compare their school against healthy national standards for physical activity, diet, and sleep. It is easy to see how many children are overweight or obese — a few too many city children it seems. Student researchers measured cardiorespiratory fitness, different kinds of strength, flexibility, speed and agility, and there is room for improvement between the schools and the area average in some of these measures. Armed with this data, schools can make strategic decisions about the space and time it gives to the health and fitness of its pupils.
These measurements are part of a research project called Kenya-LINX, which combines the expertise of Geography, Exercise Science, Education and Health and Medical Engineering at Swansea and Kenyatta Universities, funded by the British Academy under its Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme[i]. So far, data has been collected in 33 schools: 16 of them in Nairobi (urban) and 17 in Kitui (rural), with 1,163 children aged 8 to 11 of which 53% were girls. The ‘Fitness Fun Day’ measurements are combined with data from wearable accelerometers. These are sensors which measure children’s activity levels, diet, periods of rest and sleep, which, when combined with the children’s interview data, provide an all-round picture of their health and well-being. It also helps the researchers to understand how children actually like to spend their time. The aim of the research is to better understand the lived experience of children’s physical activity, health, and well-being in urban contexts like Nairobi, and compare this with rural communities, like Kitui. So far, the research is revealing how well primary school children understand the concepts of health and fitness — they are very knowledgeable.
The data show surprisingly low fitness levels, obesity and underweight in primary school children (8 to 11 years old). Significant proportions of children are either under or overweight with important differences between urban and rural schools. 40% of Kitui children are underweight and 20% of Nairobi children are overweight or obese. School food programmes combined with promoting active lifestyles could address this. Cardiorespiratory fitness levels are lower in urban Nairobi, where children’s lives are more sedentary. Most surprising of all, only 20% of children in either location get enough sleep.
This research has important policy implications. School regimes and especially attitudes to PE and encouragement of active mobilities are crucial. Provision of physical and timetable space in schools for PE and play can make a difference. The data are already beginning to influence schools and the wider framework in which they operate in County Education Authorities. While at the moment a limited number of schools are involved, this can easily be scaled up as further schools see the benefits of joining in.
Why does this matter? Children’s physical activity and low levels of fitness are the fourth biggest cause of non-communicable diseases worldwide, with the most serious including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Children’s fitness and activity are also related to psychological wellbeing, which in turn affects their ability to learn and achieve at school. In adult life these diseases often drive people into poverty, seriously damaging their well-being. They also impact on urban economies and increase the load on health care systems. Children are Kenya’s future prosperity, and yet in Nairobi 21% are overweight or obese.
[i] Kenya healthy diet and active lifestyle infrastructure for the next generation — Kenya-LINX is led by Gareth Stratton, with Nils Swindell, Huw Summers, Sinead Brophy (University of Swansea, UK), Vincent Onywra, Lucy Joy Wachira, Victor Okoth and George Oweno (Kenyatta University, Nairobi).
Caroline Knowles is the Director of the British Academy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme and a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. An urban Sociologist with research experience in a number of cities, she is the author of many books and papers, most recently, Flip-Flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads, published by Pluto Press (2014 & 2015) www.flipfloptrail.com and Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, published by Penguin (2022) https://seriousmoneybook.com