Playtime is over for unhealthy attitudes

Because of rising rates of obesity and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, writes Claire Heneghan

Playtime is over for unhealthy attitudes

Because of rising rates of obesity and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, writes Claire Heneghan

Obesity has emerged as a major health issue here in Ireland and around the globe. It is in every town, every school, and every workplace. Obesity is more than a cosmetic concern. It sets us on a fast track towards medical complications such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Obesity is the end result of an inversely proportional relationship between activity level and caloric intake. The rate of obesity has increased in the past 20 years and continues to grow. Today, Ireland is ranked fifth-highest among 27 EU countries in incidence of childhood obesity.

At present, approximately one in four primary school children are overweight or obese. Overweight children have a 70%-80% chance of staying overweight their entire lives.

Perhaps one of the most sobering realisations is that because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Something needs to be done.

Active play has always been part of childhood. However, over the last number of decades studies have shown that children, who have always been the most active of the populace, spend an ever-increasing amount of time involved in sedentary pursuits such as watching television and playing computer games.

Children are being driven to school instead of walking or cycling and the participation rates in sports and physical leisure activities are declining, resulting in reduced fitness rates in children. The HSE recommends that children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

From the Growing up in Ireland survey, it emerged that only 25% of children met the recommendation, and these patterns have been shown to carry into adulthood. Studies have shown that physical activity and elevated fitness levels help to diminish the risk of coronary heart disease, blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, some cancers, and depression.

Physical activity needs to be addressed both inside the home and at school. Schools have been acknowledged as being a key setting for the promotion of physical activity and healthy living in children. Children generally have two outlets for physical activity in school: PE and break-time.

PE alone has been shown not to meet physical activity recommendations needed for health benefits. Irish primary school children are allocated just over half of the EU average of 109 minutes of PE classes per week.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) reported that Irish primary teachers identified there being insufficient time to adequately cover all 11 curricular subjects due to an overloaded curriculum. Some 52% of total teaching time in primary schools is awarded to English, Irish, and Mathematics. This leaves eight subjects, including PE, competing for 48% of the remaining instructional time.

As a result, the EU Education Information Network found that Irish primary schools offered fewer hours of PE than any other EU member state, where 45 hours of PE per annum is the minimum.

Therefore break-time is seen as a fundamental element in the promotion of school-based physical activity and fitness as the primary school curriculum advocates 30 minutes of recreation and a further break of 10 minutes daily.

Break-time can play a role in children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development and studies show that breaks where children can partake in physical activity lead to an improvement in their alertness, attentiveness, and improved classroom behaviour.

Irish school playgrounds have been described in research as “flat and uninspiring pieces of tarmac”, with equipment scarce and basic.

Schools should strive for playgrounds to be aesthetically pleasing with quality landscapes where both formal and informal learning can take place. Risk evaluation is crucial in school play areas and should be monitored regularly.

However, recent research has revealed that a very over-exaggerated focus on safety issues in children’s play environments (a no running policy, for example) is problematic as it can lead to children being restricted from practices and experiences that are influential to their general development.

The break-time environment should encourage children to be physically active. Active break-time involves purposefully designing the playground with activities to encourage physical activity. Research has shown that the adaptation of the schoolyard, by installing fixed playground equipment, games equipment, and playground markings to encourage more physical activity in children at school have yielded positive results and benefits.

A recently published study I completed found that the presence of fixed playground equipment at school had a significant positive effect on the fitness levels of children over the school year.

Yet low-cost initiatives are also proven to be very effective in contributing to children’s activity levels, as shown in an array of studies from the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand.

Most Irish primary schools have an abundance of readily available and low-cost equipment such as balls, skipping ropes, and hool-a-hoops that can be utilised during break-time. Simple initiatives that incorporate this kind of equipment, as well as simple jogging/cardio drills in several activity stations, can be easily implemented with great results.

With 75% of our children not meeting the recommendation of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, promotion of physical activity and fitness and investment in these areas in schools are urgently required.

Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century. Encouraging both physical activity and healthy eating both at home and at school is key in helping to combat this epidemic. Easily implemented initiatives, which utilise PE equipment during break-time at school, can be very effective in increasing children’s activity levels.

We all have a role to play in the fight against childhood obesity, both at home and at school.

The Foresight report concluded with the grave prediction “that unless sustained efforts are made to treat childhood obesity, the number of children who are either overweight or obese could rise as high as 50% by 2050”. The only question remains: Can we afford not to carry out our duty to promote physical activity and healthy living in our children?

Claire Heneghan is a primary teacher specialised in school health promotion. Her published studies are on the benefits of active break-time on children’s fitness levels. She has worked with the University of Western Sydney lecturing in PE and health education and was involved in a number of Australian initiatives set up in schools to combat childhood obesity. She was one of the leading contributors in the recent Oireachtas report on tackling childhood obesity in Ireland.

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