DARLINGTON has become the first town in the country to sign up to a campaign to boost the health of the nation.

Darlington Partnership yesterday pledged to "Take to the Streets" with a revolutionary physical activity initiative led by sporting legend Brendan Foster.

Its board agreed unanimously to support the project, which aims to get two million people involved in regular exercise by 2012, with runners, walkers, dancers and cyclists covering 100 million miles for their health and charity.

Darlington will become a national case study, taking part in a host of mass participation events and be involved in a five- year scientific study to assess the impact of the project.

Branded the Great Activity Campaign and flying the Take to the Streets flag, organisers believe it will have a greater effect on the nation's worsening health than anything proposed by the Government or the influence of the 2012 Olympics.

Foster, a former world record holder and medal winner at European, world and Olympic level, presented his idea to Darlington Partnership's Board.

The Local Strategic Partnership, which brings together key figures from the public and private sectors, along with voluntary and community organisations, welcomed the idea and became the first in the country to sign up.

Foster, who founded the Great North Run, told the board the idea was an extension of the annual half-marathon, which had also spawned a number of "Greats" across the country.

The latest initiative had been 18 months in development and was due to be launched nationally next month.

Foster said studies had shown that, unless something was done, by 2012 more than half of the country's men would be clinically obese and a quarter of the nation's women.

For the first time, children born today had lower life expectancies than their older siblings.

But a study has revealed that an extra 70 minutes exercise a day, which resulted in 1,600 extra steps being taken, had slowed the increase in body fat among young people.

Exciting, mass participation events also stimulated sustained activity and were a powerful motivator, said Foster.

"We really do need a revolution, because no one else is planning to do anything," he said.

"The Government has no plans to deliver a participation strategy, neither have the organisers of the 2012 Olympic Games.

"In fact, from previous experience, there is actually a downturn in physical activity after a games. Darlington already has a great record for staging mass participation events - such as the Sherwoods 10K Run, cycling festival and Great North Walk.

"It has the skills and motivation to organise such events and I believe that signing up to this initiative could see Darlington become the most active place in the country."

Nationally, the initiative could prevent 12,000 premature deaths a year and save the health service £12bn.

Darlington would become the vanguard of a campaign that would involve thousands of residents.

It would target schools and young people and see mass participation events such as runs, cycle races, walks and a dance programme brought under the Take to the Streets banner.

National exercise and healthy eating events could also be staged in Darlington as might a leg of the Guinness World Records-qualifying Great School Run.

Northern Echo editor Peter Barron chairs a partnership inquiry group on public health, one of six panels scrutinising all aspects of life in the borough and ways to improve them.

He said: "One of the things that shocked me was finding that there is a 13-year gap in life expectancy between the most affluent and poorest wards - that is totally unacceptable.

"We have to do more than just talk. Here we have an opportunity to raise the bar.

"We have a legendary sporting figure from the North-East, with a huge amount of credibility, affection and experience of organising mass participation events, offering Darlington the opportunity to lead the nation. It is something we have to do."

Darlington Borough Council leader John Williams backed the initiative. "It's a great idea, which we should support in a big way," he said.

"All the partners will have to work together and it is something in which we can involve our schools."

Darlington Primary Care Trust's director of public health ,Miriam Davidson, said: "This is something that could really make a difference, particularly if it appeals to the most disadvantaged sections of the community."

Chairman of Sport England North-East Peter Rowley, who is also chief executive of Darlington Building Society, said the project had come at the ideal time. He said: "It's a brilliant opportunity to be at the forefront of something like this."

Board chairman Alasdair MacConachie said: "This is a fantastic challenge to be able to take up and a terrific opportunity for Darlington to lead the rest of the country.