Barry McGuigan hoping children of Britain will box their way to health

London Letter: the famous boxer’s academy promotes exercise, education and healthy eating

Barry McGuigan: “Schools struggled to get many of these kids interested in exercise. But this has been amazing.” Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Barry McGuigan: “Schools struggled to get many of these kids interested in exercise. But this has been amazing.” Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images


Thirty years ago, Barry McGuigan used the emblem of a white dove carrying an olive branch as he navigated his way skilfully through a succession of boxing rings and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Yesterday, in the Copper Box in the Olympic Park in east London, the emblem adorned T-shirts worn by dozens of primary school pupils from schools in Waltham Forest, a borough near the Olympic grounds.

Under the tutelage of Limerick-born trainer Brian Walpole, the children jabbed and feinted gleefully, dancing on their heels to the soundtrack of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.

Last year, the Barry McGuigan Boxing Academy began to work with primary schools in four London boroughs surrounding the Olympic Park: Newham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

For older pupils, McGuigan’s organisation is working with 16- to 18 year-olds attending colleges in Stockport, Leicestershire, Bristol, Berkshire and Northamptonshire, where they are encouraged to stay in education with the offer of nine hours’ boxing coaching each week.

“Each of them gets access to an Amateur Boxing Association-trained coach. It is a huge magnet for them to subscribe to education and, more importantly, to finish the course they started,” says McGuigan, who left school at 15.

Figures from the National Health Service show that almost a quarter of four- and five-year-olds in Waltham Forest are either overweight or obese, while 10- and 11-year- olds perform even worse, with 35.3 per cent carrying an unhealthy amount of weight.

Obesity is higher than the national average for all children among Asian, black or mixed-race backgrounds in the borough, which has always been a magnet for immigrants to Britain. “It’s a real epidemic at this point. We are becoming more Americanised in our habits as every year goes by and it is all putting an overwhelming pressure on the NHS,” says McGuigan.

Exercise and education
Mixing exercise with numeracy and literacy, the programme, backed by the London Legacy Development Corporation, has worked with 2,500 children, helping them to eat better foods and exercise more.

“Schools struggled to get many of these kids interested in exercise. But this has been amazing. Some of the girls, for instance, who don’t like the exercise, stick with it because they like the education bits,

“Other children are entirely different, sticking with it because they like the games, but not the literacy and numeracy bits,” says McGuigan’s wife, Sandra, who manages the academy’s day-to-day operations.

Teachers are trained to carry on the exercise scheme after McGuigan’s colleagues finish their six-week programme, while pupils are encouraged to eat healthy breakfasts.

Parents have also become involved, learning that fresh food does not have to be more expensive than processed products, while grandparents have come along to exercise classes.

In each corner of the Copper Box’s playing court, plastic mats carry diagrams of the heart or pictures of processed and fresh foods, all tied in to exercises and card games promoting the mantra of “heart health: energy, activity, lifestyle, teamwork and happiness”.

“Then there what we call ‘fun facts’: how many times does your heart beat during your life, for instance. Or we teach kids skipping, which the boys will go for if they connect it to boxing, rather than something that just girls do,” says Sandra McGuigan.

Rise in obesity
Health campaigners face a long road ahead. Obesity in Britain has risen sharply in the past 20 years. In 1993, 13 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women were classified as obese, while the numbers had jumped to 24 per cent for men and 26 per cent for women by 2011.

More than half of such men and 44 per cent of women had high blood pressure, while the number of hospital admissions directly blamed on obesity that year rose to 11,736 – 11 times the amount a decade ago.

Obesity is believed to cost the NHS £4.2 billion (€3.2 billion) a year, and even optimistic predictions warn that the bill could double within 30 years. The indirect costs, such as days lost from work or lower productivity, are put at £16 billion annually.

The lack of exercise in the average Briton’s life is the main cause, but unhealthy eating is not far behind, blamed on the high percentage of processed foods and lack of fruit and vegetables in the British diet.

Changing medical histories also play a role: diabetes, hypothyroidism and endocrine disorders lead to weight gain and all are increasing in Britain, while anti-depressants, cortisone tablets or injections and contraceptives play a part.

Still, one man’s problem is another’s opportunity. Despite tough economic times, the number of people going to the gym continues to rise. This year, some £2.5 billion will be paid over.

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