Childhood obesity is a real and pressing health problem in Australia. Children are spending more time doing sedentary activities such as watching television and playing computer games. These activities don’t involve much physical activity which contributes to the growing childhood obesity dilemma. According to the department of health and ageing- Australia (2007) about one in every five children is now overweight or obese, furthermore, 25% of obese six year olds will become obese adults (Rosenberg, 2005). This paper examines the importance of physical activity, the teacher’s role in addressing and preventing obesity and significant contributions that teachers can offer to help reverse child obesity. The target age group for this paper is 5-10 year olds.
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Children become overweight when the energy they take in or consume is greater than the energy they expel through physical activity (Catford & Caterson, 2003). Physical activity for this age group is important because physical fitness is a habit that we learn. Children learn early to choose between sitting indoors and watching television or going outside to play ball. According to Steinback (2001) physical activity builds skills and co-ordination. It can also give personal satisfaction when achieving something new or difficult and it can help children who then become adults meet new friends with similar interests e.g. riding your bicycle in the park or playing on the swings. Exercise also produces endorphins and helps sleep patterns (Salmon, 2005).
Adults teach fitness through example. It is possible to establish healthy lifestyle choices from an early age and lay the foundation for a child’s physical activity patterns. As discussed by Lumeng (2005) there are studies to indicate that if a child as young as three is overweight, they may be on the path to obesity in adulthood.
Due to changes in family dynamics and the social and economic aspects of life, there is added responsibility on educators to provide extra services such as health education; however, teachers can only be effective if they are willing, trained and prepared to undertake such a role. Emmel (2005) suggests that schools have come a long way in the last 5 years in regards to awareness due to added pressure from parents and the community. The teacher’s role in addressing and preventing obesity is important because there are many health related problems for overweight children, including, diabetes, high blood pressure, joint problems, breathing difficulties and even social issues such as bullying and feelings of isolation from not being able to participate in physical activities (Reilly, Methren, McDowell, Hacking, Alexander, Stewart & Kelnar, 2003).
Schools provide the ideal setting for the prevention of obesity due to the number of continual and concentrated access to a large number of individuals at a developmentally appropriate age (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2010). Schools can provide students with structured play and learning opportunities for promoting healthy lifestyle choices. Teachers spend a large amount of time with students especially in the early years. They are looked up to for guidance and support from the students, therefore, teachers help to shape students attitudes and beliefs. The role of the teacher in addressing childhood obesity is to encourage and provide opportunity for development.
The environment we live in which includes the school environment is the perfect playground for making choices. If our environment shapes our choices then children are perfect targets for food advertisements. Teachers can take advantage of this dominant resource to educate students on good health and physical activity. It is vital that these advertisements promote good food choices, however, there is still a long way to go before junk food advertisements are taken away (Ashton, 2004).
Snacks should be a regular part of a child’s diet. Since young children’s stomachs are still small, they eat small meals. Most children need more than three meals each day. Snacks should be nutritious, not “junk” food. Good snacks include fruit, cheese, juices, popcorn, crackers with peanut butter, fresh carrots or celery, flavoured yogurt, and bread and butter (Child & Youth health, 2010).
Three ways a teacher could assist young children in addressing or preventing obesity include;
Activities for children- involve all children regardless of body weight, so that no one child feels singled out. According to Lumeng (2005) it’s not about being on a diet or restricting food, it is a whole lifestyle change that includes eating healthy food combined with daily physical activity. It may take several attempts before children are comfortable with physical activity. Try organising one afternoon each week before school ends where each child takes a turn to choose their favourite physical activity and everyone has the opportunity to participate. Teachers can use this opportunity to encourage those who are not athletically gifted or have health care issues. They can also follow up on any students they feel need extra support.
Assignments on good nutrition and physical activities – cut out pictures in magazines of healthy food and exercise. Encouraging children and leading by example is a powerful tool. Teachers can involve parents as well so that children learn which foods to eat or how much exercise to engage in. Display the cut outs on posters designed to encourage good food choices. If children look at them long enough they may start to identify these items and choose them over chocolate or chips (Emmel, 2005). Above all activities need to be fun and stimulating.
Implementing a quality schools meal program- this includes an overhaul of the schools canteen and what parents put in lunch boxes. Only making healthy food available during school hours will encourage students to make better choices. Adopting marketing techniques to promote healthy choices is a good way to get students excited about food. This can also extend to fundraising campaigns and vending machines on school grounds. Foods defined as having minimal nutritional value such as sugary lollies, salty chips and soft drinks should be eliminated from the menu (Rosenberg, 2005).
In conclusion, there is growing recognition of the need to establish positive attitudes to healthy lifestyle practices from an early age if obesity is to be reversed later on. Without a strong contribution from schools children can grow up to have body image and weight control issues. Children need to exercise to improve endurance, strength, flexibility and social skills focussing on self-improvement rather than on comparison to others. The teacher’s role is a preventive one which is designed to improve the lives of young people through physical activity and healthy eating to reduce the obesity pandemic of the students of today and in the future.