David Marshall, a fitness guru known as the Bodydoctor, has created a system for schools that has children exercising with a smile. One London school swears by it; the only problem is getting the politicians to listen. By Valerie James.
Year Six are wagging their tails. I know all about 'wag your tail': roll on to your back like a puppy, feet in the air, knees bent, put your hands behind your head, lift your shoulders, engage core muscles and wag your hips/tail as hard as you can. This and other exercises from the Bodydoctor, alias David Marshall, cured my long-standing lower-back problem, so I know how to do it and I know how tough it is, but to Year Six at Barrow Hill Junior School in St John's Wood, London, it appears to be a breeze.
The moves also appear to be great fun: jogging, then freezing into balances as in the game of statues, animal walks such as crab, duck and frog, all as a warm-up to the circuit training of wag your tail, hippy-hippy shake, skipping, lunges, star jumps, dry-land swimming, and the almost certainly politically suspect 'pass the bomb' (Marshall: 'It's not a parcel it's a bomb! Pass it quickly, arms straight, you want it as far away from you as possible!') and the toughest of the lot, the baby crawl. These are then followed by stretches, some recognisably yoga-based.
Marshall, who has gyms in Primrose Hill and at the Chelsea Harbour Club, and whose clients include Ant and Dec, Sophie Dahl, Rachel Weisz, and the footballers Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand, devised these exercises because 'I am passionate about my work, and I remember my childhood as being always active. Kids today, the unfit, unmoving ones, need to get into the habit of exercise. But you have to make it fun.'
Making exercise fun is what David Marshall does. Moving from a career in brokerage, he turned what had been a hobby since he was 17 into a business, and in 1994 became a trainer. He operated solely as a private trainer, and when he opened his gym in Primrose Hill he offered one-on-one sessions.
'Because to be right, the principles and techniques have to be one-on-one. I am a small business; my team doesn't go into double figures. What we do is rehab work, and we are the only programme ever recommended and endorsed by a public healthcare company. Our exercises work with your body and are tailored to work the whole body. We are not a weight-loss company or a fat-loss company. You will lose weight and fat on this programme, but most importantly what we do is put the body into balance. Most trainers don't mind if you alter the sequence of exercises; I do. My programme is a series of sequential exercises that I call "cleaning as you go". It is a serious system and a serious business, but our approach is jokey and irreverent.'
Get Marshall on to his subject and you realise that this really is his passion. 'I'm a trainer, but I am not a 25-year-old testosterone cowboy. I'm 49. I've been the fat kid, the odd one out, and I've been fit, fat, slim, and a slob. I've been there, I know the feeling.' He starts to get agitated as he says, 'What I think is disgraceful is this talk of stapling children's stomachs, when I have been knocking on doors for more than a year. I can't do the Government's work for them, but I have a system here that works. I am so angry about this. They promised not to sell off any more playing fields, and then just carried on.
'Kids can't play in the streets any more, like we used to, and if they don't exercise they just get more and more unfit. They have abandoned a whole generation of children. I have tried to talk to everyone, to get this system into schools. We are acknowledged, accredited trainers, our reputation is second to none and I am offering this for nothing.'
According to Marshall, the Innovations Section at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) says his is a great system, but each school must decide; Caroline Flint's office at the Department of Health (DoH) has stopped returning his calls and recently sent him a letter saying, 'We appreciate that your work supports the Government's aim to increase physical activity and tackle childhood obesity. Unfortunately, the DoH is not in a position to offer you funding.'
Marshall looks set to explode. 'I haven't asked for money! I have asked them to evaluate what we are doing at Barrow Hill, do a trial, and then we'll help them to train some trainers. I'm already working with the Westminster Sports Unit, but I'm only one man. I can't spread myself over all schools, and I've no wish to.'
It was pure luck that the school he started with, which is his old school, Barrow Hill Junior ('where I had the best time of my life'), turned out to be the perfect choice. The current headteacher, Michael Matthews, is one of those enlightened heads to whom all things seem possible if he can see the benefit to the children. For example, he suspended the National Curriculum for a week for a whole-school art project; he initiated an involvement with the Wigmore Hall (the school choir performed there in December in The Magic Flute); he brought in the Soil Association to speak to the children about healthy eating, monitoring packed lunches, and working with the chef/manager to introduce healthier dishes on the school dinner menu.
These latter moves were not universally popular at first ('Michael, is this healthy-eating week coming to an end some time?' one pupil asked), but now the percentage taking school dinners has almost doubled. And this is a first-name school. Even Matthews wasn't sure about that when he came for his interview five years ago, but he was won over, and such is the atmosphere at Barrow Hill that it seems entirely natural and right.
'This is a child-centred school,' he says. 'We are not slaves to Sats and league tables. When yet another weight of paper thuds on to my desk from the DfES, I may sigh, but for the sake of the children we cannot act as though we are in a straitjacket. Our aim is to educate the whole child, and we hope they leave here not just with the educational tools, but also an understanding of self, and exercise is part of that.'
St John's Wood is a very prosperous area, but Barrow Hill is a school in the London borough of Westminster, where two thirds of the schools are faith schools, which excludes many pupils. Barrow Hill's intake includes children from those socialist/egalitarian parents who own the multi-million-pound properties of St John's Wood and Primrose Hill but prefer not to send their children to private school, and others from some of the worst of Westminster's council housing.
Barrow Hill has a large waiting-list and is the definitive mixed school: its intake contains not only children with differing levels of affluence, but children from 42 different countries, speaking 35 different languages, and with 64 per cent of pupils having English as an additional language.
The school is also a Victorian building, with a small playground and no playing fields, so when David Marshall told Matthews that his exercise programme had no competitive framework, needed very little space and no equipment, he was pushing at an open door. 'As long as Justin Perryman, our PE co-ordinator, approves, we'll give it a try.'
The government target is two hours of PE activity a week, divided into the five strands of gymastics, swimming, games, dance and outdoor activities. So Marshall and Perryman, two men with totally opposing styles and approaches – the first, exuberant and over the top, the second an Australian with an easygoing manner that belies his control in the classroom – worked together adapting and fitting the routines to a PE class, slotting them into a gymastics session.
The routines are based on evolutionary exercise principles. 'I remembered how my daughter moved as a baby,' Marshall says, 'and worked through the three planes of movement to achieve flexibility, co-ordination, balance, strength and aerobic fitness. But Justin is the genius who put in the delivery system and psychological elements.' The 'delivery system' involves always moving the children around so that they cannot settle into cliques, and there is no 'I only want to exercise with my friend', nor is there any hanging back; everyone, of every size, weight and level of fitness, joins in because, as they told me, 'It's a laugh.'
Encouragement from Marshall and Perryman is constant; during lunges fingers are told to 'tickle the ceiling' but there is also 'do it nice, or do it twice' and soon faces are pink with exertion, and there is much giggling, but they are only in competition with themselves.
That is what Perryman says is different about the Bodydoctor system, for 'any exercise will pretty much do the job of getting you moving and getting fitter, but with this the kids don't realise that they are working at their own level, or that they are working quite hard. There's probably not much change in the sporty kids, but lower down the scale there are a lot of reluctant girls, and those girls – because it's indoors and non-threatening – like it and get more confidence.
'Even though it is just one session a week, it shows results; the bigger kids join in more, and also some of the boys who are not the brightest seem more energised. Just last week on a school trip we did a day-long hike, about 6km. They all did it and enjoyed it, whereas every other year there have been moans and groans.'
After one round of the circuit it is time for 'Be the Expert'. In teams of three, two children do the exercise while the other supervises and corrects the technique. Finally the children are asked to mark themselves out of 10 for their success in performing the exercises, and how they could improve. Most give themselves a low mark, but one, Abraham, his face alight with mischief, says, 'Nine and three quarters, plus one eighth.' Perryman doesn't miss a beat. 'Interesting marking. Give me that as a decimal, will you?' It comes slowly. 'Nine point… eight… seven five.' No drop in standards at Barrow Hill, then.
Marshall explains that he sold the children the system by telling them it would help them feel better in all sorts of ways. 'You will sleep better, work and concentrate better, have more of an appetite, be more patient and less irritable, and if you want to take part in a sport, or another activity, this will give you the tools to do it as well as possible.' There was never any mention of weight or size. Oh, and they would have to do homework, too.
The children and their parents confirmed this. Jacob, his mother says, was 'very inspired. He had stopped doing gymastics, but now he has started those classes again. And he says that we should be biking to school.' It may appeal to the boys because Perryman has put the Bodydoctor classes into a slot where they used to do dance: 'La, la, la…' and one boy twirls, and grimaces as only a nine-year-old boy can. Ava's mother tells me that 'Ava told us all about it, and then she got us all doing it, Mum, Dad and her three-year-old sister. I found the stretches tougher than she did, but then I'm not nine years old.'
Chloe uses the exercises as a warm-up before her gymastics class, her mother says, 'and when I pointed out that the exercises were different from her previous ones, she said, "This is what the Bodydoctor told me to do," and there was absolutely no argument.' Temi, her mother confirms, 'has been made aware of exercising and how important it is. She was very excited when the classes started, and got me to do it a couple of times, but I couldn't keep up with her.'
Marshall, with an enthusiasm thermostat set extra high, is someone the children naturally warm to. When they see him there are cries of 'Bodydoctor!' and much use of high fives, followed by, 'When are Ant and Dec coming?' Marshall has promised that some of his more famous clients will come and talk to the school about how important exercise is to them. 'Listen,' he says, 'they're my clients and you're my clients, and they're no more special than you. They're famous, but they still only have two arms and two legs, just like you.' The clamour continues as they ask, 'But when are you coming back to do classes?'
The answer is in January, when Perryman will carry on with his Year Five class, while Marshall takes over Year Six, and those children will then use their expertise to help in teaching the younger classes. Plus, Marshall is offering after-school training for all the other members of staff, so that it can be rolled out throughout the school. 'It's a double whammy for Michael; he gets fitter children and fitter teachers. And they are giving me their free time, don't forget.'
Free, the magic word again. Because Marshall is still giving the system and his time for free, and because he has been told there is 'no budget for this kind of thing', he is now spending even more time negotiating with sponsors. He is in early discussions with BUPA, and in the meantime the system will gradually be introduced, through the training of teachers, into Westminster schools, and one in Hackney – and with luck, parental and headteacher pressure, and sponsorship, it could be coming soon to a school near you.
There are low-cost parent and child classes – one parent, one child, in small groups, with four to six tuition sessions – at the Bodydoctor Primrose Hill Gym (020 7235 2211)