Obesity and Physical Activity in Schools

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Engaging in acts of physical activity from a young age is very important for both the mental and physical health of a child; the habits learnt in youth tend to continue onto adulthood thus having an effect on the prevalence of obesity and related illnesses in society. “Obesity is increasing steeply in Australia” ( Magarey, A. M., Daniels, L. A. and Boulton, T. J. 2001) “and almost 25% of children are affected” (Booth, Wake, Armstrong, Chey, Hesketh, and Mathur.2001). So why is physical activity so important for children and what age is instilling positive habits most beneficial? What roles do teachers of today play in addressing and preventing obesity in our children and what are effective strategies to do this?

The benefits of physical activity are vast and the habits instilled in children from a young age can determine the lifestyle they will lead as adults. An unfortunate common misconception is that it is easy to reverse the unhealthy lifestyle taught to children. Prevention however is better than a cure. It is never too early to start teaching a child positive behaviours and habits middle childhood (ages 6-10) children tend to be in a stage of development where they think very literally they will absorb everything you teach, do, and say and are incredibly influential. It is t this stage of development that their most likely to be taught healthy eating habits, develop exercise programs and have an interest in organised sports. “Young people will carry established healthy behaviours throughout their lives such as better eating habits and decreased likelihood of smoking” (Shilton, T. and Naughton, G. 2001). Through physical activity children of middle childhood develop healthy muscles, bones and joints; they develop a healthy heart and lungs and they also develop a higher neuromuscular awareness which influences their co-ordination, how they control movement and the development of fine and gross motor skills. Most obviously it enables them to maintain a healthy body weight. Physical activity has also been linked to psychological benefits by improving the control children have over the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Studies have also shown that the participation in physical activity can assist in the social development of children aged 6-10 by providing the opportunity for expression, building confidence and social interaction. Physically active young people have been noted to more readily adopt other healthy lifestyle behaviours (avoidance of tobacco, alcohol and drugs) and demonstrate higher academic performance at school.

Children of the age’s six to ten spend the majority of their time at school giving teachers an ideal position to influence a healthy lifestyle both physically, mentally and emotionally. “Schools have been recognized as an appropriate setting for the prevention of eating disorders and child obesity due to the continual and concentrated access to a large number of individuals at a developmentally appropriate age. Research has shown that well-designed and implemented school programs can effectively promote physical activity, healthy eating, and reduction of television viewing and time spent using the computer and computer games.”(Neumark-Sztainer, 1996; O’Dea & Maloney, 2000). The role a teacher plays in the prevention of obesity is however restricted by the influence of a child’s family and the community in which they reside. It is therefore more a teacher’s role to set a good example to children rather than to attempt to tackle the epidemic alone.

One strategy teachers can use in the classroom to address and treat the occurrence of obesity in children is to discontinue the use of food as a reward. Food has been used to reward children for good behaviour and performance. It’s a very easy, powerful and inexpensive tool in bringing about immediate behavioural changes in children of thee ages six to ten. However, using food as reward often encourages overeating of unhealthy foods high...
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