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Sporting Chance

Collaborative research with the Arsenal-in-the-Community (AITC) team

Testing the Evolutionary Determinants of Health in Inner City Schools

Collaborative research with the Arsenal-in-the-Community (AITC) team

UCL has joined the Premier League with this new project, supported by the Grand Challenges scheme. It involves staff from the Institute of Archaeology and the Department of Epidemiology & Public Health collaborating with the Arsenal-in-the-Community (AITC) team. The latter run successful sports and educational programmes in inner-city schools in Camden, Islington and Hackney. Our aim is to reconfigure and extend their valuable work, through a programme that builds on the Evolutionary Determinants of Health concept.

The grant will be used to develop pilot projects to improve the wellbeing of children in some of London's most deprived estates through behavioural change. With 21% of London’s primary school children classified by the NHS as obese, it is clear that more must be done to encourage healthy living. Together with the pressing need to change eating habits is the imperative to increase participation in physical activity, be it sport, dance or even regular walking. The link between obesity and the increase in risk of type 2 diabetes is clearly documented, as is an alarming rise in vitamin D deficiency, a result of modern behavioural changes in which children spend less time out of doors, for example. This research graphically illustrates the case for developing more effective nutritional and exercise regimes: the key concern is not just to oblige children to exercise while in class, but to encourage them to live healthier and more active lives after school. If these challenges are not addressed at this early stage, future demands on the NHS will be unsustainable.

Evolutionary Determinants of Health: the Eden Protocol

Our project considers the challenge from the innovative perspective of the Evolutionary Determinants of Health. This study explores the premise that our brains and bodies are still essentially the same as those of our Palaeolithic ancestors, designed for a tribal, hunter-gatherer life revolving around particular nutritional and activity regimes, small-scale societies and close engagement with the natural world. Our modern sedentary urban culture is markedly at variance with many of these deep-seated evolutionary imperatives but we can now suggest health behaviours (the so-called Eden Protocol) that better integrate our ancient biological legacy with the daily demands of 21st-century urban life. Our “SPORTING CHANCE” project will explore a range of four themes:

  • Evolutionary Activities
    In a speech made in Sheffield in January 2013, Baroness Campbell, the head of UK Sport and Youth Sport Trust was alarmed by the statistic that 20% of children starting primary school are overweight and also by what she has termed the “physical illiteracy” of children starting secondary school, still unable to throw or catch a ball, or run or jump. Such a situation does not bode well for the nurturing of tomorrow’s sports stars of for future demands on the NHS. Better training for the body as well as the mind was called for. We hope to suggest ways to improve physical literacy by working with the Arsenal-in-the Community-Team, we hope to develop a wider range of games, activities and skills based on the daily regimes of hunter-gatherers, but reconfigured for the 21st century, to improve physical literacy.
  • Music and Movement
    There is evidence to show the ‘music’ and rhythmic activities have a deep history and were utilized in ancient societies to support repetitive physical activities and to aid communication before the fuller development of articulate speech. As long ago as 1871, Charles Darwin declared that “music, dancing, song and poetry are ancient arts…and…. believe that musical sounds afforded one of the bases for the development of language” (Darwin 1871, 638-9). Musical exercises can also be effective in developing teamworking skills as well as improving technical expertise: indeed Brazilian football clubs often use samba-based training.
  • Park-based v Gym-based exercise
    Research conducted at UCL is considering the biological, psychological and physiological benefits that accrue from exercising outdoors rather than indoors. We hope to run pilot projects with the current AITC programmes (indoor and outdoor) to develop and quantify this research avenue.
  • Urban Gangs, Crime Science and Sport
    In our deep past, the tribal youth engaged in the adrenalin-fuelled and socially-acceptable activity of hunting. The comparatively –recent development of towns has not removed the basic elements of the hunting psyche from the urbanized population, and regrettably the territorial hunting party re-emerges as the post-code street gang. However, organised sport can be used as a highly effective proxy both for hunting and for urban gangs, since it channels the same energies to more socially-acceptable ends. This is dramatically demonstrated by the falling crime rates that accompanied the “Midnight Basketball” programmes, so effective in the USA and Australia, as well as Arsenal’s own “KICKZ” scheme in North London. Any extension of such valuable work demands that adequate provision must be made for sporting facilities in the townscape, and thus Crime Science, Archaeology, Public Health and Town Planning share common ground, particularly in the aftermath of the London Olympics.

Related outputs

  • Inter-departmental/ cross-faculty workshops will be run to develop these ideas, followed by a major conference session, the proceedings of which will be published. Teaching materials will also be prepared, and these will allow successful elements of this project to be rolled out across other schools.

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Our work actively addresses UCL Grand Challenges of Sustainable Cities and Human Wellbeing


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