THE public health mantra to address the obesity “epidemic” is “Eat Less. Exercise More”. If only it was that simple.
Let’s take the example of Matthew. Matthew is 13 and he’s overweight. It’s not surprising – his grandparents are overweight, his parents are overweight and he hates sport.
Last week we heard lots of experts tell us that children need to exercise more. It’s not rocket science, and in a country of sports lovers, it’s almost unnecessary advice. But what happens to those children who don’t like sport?
School physical education classes can be very traumatic for students who are overweight and those who don’t like sport. They dread the line-up where teams are picked, they get embarrassed standing on the starting blocks in their bathers and they hate coming last at every compulsory sports day, cross country event, time trial and orienteering.
It’s all very well to make sport compulsory – physical fitness is no less important than being able to read, write and do maths. But simply making sport compulsory or nagging children to exercise hasn’t helped Matthew. He has endured years of ridicule and embarrassment because of school sport.
Every school term, Matthew’s school sends a report home to his parents. Matthew is at “the expected level” in most areas, although he did have some trouble with maths. In year 5, his school offered him “special education” to help improve his maths. Now in year 8 he is doing well in maths.
However, for three years in a row Matthew’s report has shown that his general fitness is below standard. In year 5, Matthew was given a D for fitness. This indicated that his fitness was “below expected level”. In year 6, again a D. And in year 7, his grade was E+ for fitness, with an accompanying comment that this grade indicated “problems with acquisition of key skills”. The teacher’s written advice was: “I strongly recommend that Matthew increases his level of active play both inside and outside of school hours.”
Mathew’s parents have no training in physical education but they did their best. They tried leading by example and positive reinforcement, then tried bribes and more nagging. They restricted TV times, computer games and fixed their backyard trampoline. They pumped up the bike tyres, set up the totem tennis and bought a dog. Matthew’s parents also tried to enrol him into a local gym but disappointingly children under 13 are not allowed into a gym. After all this, Matthew was still not picked for the school’s footy team.
“Exercise more” is sound advice but why would any student who found exercise difficult and suffered horribly in school sports classes simply just decide to do more of it? And why is it that if a child is not “achieving at the expected level” in reading writing or arithmetic they are offered remedial classes, special education, catch up sessions and plenty of school-based support. But if a student is unfit or not good at sport, he and his parents are on their own?
How do we expect students to follow the mantra to exercise more if they don’t have the skills or confidence to do so? If we are as serious about making fitness a national priority, as we are about the three R’s, then maybe we could start thinking about strategies for helping students who are not good at sport rather than just nagging them and their parents.
We certainly did not expect children’s literacy and numeracy standards to increase just by talking about the “three Rs”.
Perhaps schools need to offer remedial or more individualised sports tuition. This tuition may not only improve students’ skills and confidence but they may also stop dreading sports day and start to enjoy exercise.
First published in The Age on 3 March 2008