School PE is part of the childhood obesity problem

The curriculum is outdated and does not equip students to lead healthy lives

PE sends shivers down the spines of many current and former secondary school students. Photograph: iStock

PE sends shivers down the spines of many current and former secondary school students. Photograph: iStock

 

A quarter of children in the State are overweight, and four out of five are not meeting even the minimum requirement of physical activity to maintain health.

Being overweight and unfit as a child is no trivial matter. And it’s not simply an aesthetic consideration. The sad truth is that the clinical studies I have overseen in DCU in recent years show prepubescent children and teenagers with very low levels of aerobic fitness, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol level, pre-diabetes and evidence of cardiovascular disease. And with overweight children and teens more likely to become overweight adults, they’re sadly being set up for a lifetime of dealing with chronic health conditions. It’s a crisis that, if ignored, will in time overwhelm our healthcare system.

Our genes, which have evolved from Stone Age hunters and gatherers, have been programmed by evolution for physical activity. In prehistoric societies, daily physical activity was an integral, obligatory aspect of their existence and linked to survival. Only those who were physically active and fit survived, and their genes have been passed to successive generations and have remained unchanged for the past 10,000 years.

Modern digital devices are engineering physical activity out our children’s lives. New research from Irish Life Health showed that 98 per cent of parents admit their children have daily screen time. This is a huge change in one generation. Unfortunately, this increase in daily sedentary activity is creating a problem for the future. Sadly, this is this generation of children in which we have to find ways to engineer physical activity into their lives.

My call for change starts with schools. We urgently need to reassess the habits we are teaching our children, and assess what works best to set them up for success. We are all very aware of how difficult it is to change an ingrained behaviour.

Falling short

I am working with Irish Life Health to bring attention to the PE curriculum in our schools, and how it should reflect the needs of children and adolescents in 21st-century Ireland.

If our children were leaving school unable to perform basic mathematics, we would examine the mathematics curriculum without delay. Why, when too many of our children are leaving school overweight, unfit and destined for a life of ill-health, are we not challenging what they are being taught in PE?

The majority of children who are not involved in competitive sport leave school with little or no knowledge of how to design and monitor programs to maintain health-related fitness. Furthermore they have little understanding of nutrition, stress management or the impact of alcohol, smoking or recreational drug use on their health. This is a curriculum that calls itself “physical education” – and is falling well short of what it promises to do.

Primary school children should have three 15-minute periods of PE each day. They should be provided with opportunities to be active and to learn fundamental movement skills in a fun environment. The added benefit is that children’s attention spans, information processing and information retrieval will be greatly enhanced following each period of physical activity. The provision of quality PE in primary schools will require upskilling many of the current primary teachers, or providing dedicated PE teachers. We simply cannot afford to procrastinate any longer. The current and future health of our children is at stake.

PE teachers agree

Physical education is an outdated vernacular and sends shivers down the spines of many current and former secondary school students. I would favour combining parts of the PE curriculum with elements of home economics and human biology to form a new health science curriculum. This would focus on equipping students with the theoretical and practical knowledge that will allow them to lead healthy lives, free of chronic lifestyle-related diseases.

We recently surveyed PE teachers themselves – those whose daily job it is to teach our children about physical education – and 81 per cent say the curriculum needs changing. More than half of PE teachers also said it wasn’t fit for purpose and that they were frustrated with the syllabus. I have seen many brilliant young PE teachers leave the job as it is so disheartening to teach a syllabus that is obviously failing.

There are so many progressive ways to harness fitness so everyone can enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be five-mile runs at dawn; it can be dance, Zumba, Pilates, cycling – anything that increases your energy expenditure above resting levels. Or why not consider extra Leaving Cert points for those hitting health goals?

Confidence, social interaction, positive self-image, sense of achievement and well-documented academic benefits are all side effects of regular exercise. It’s a no-brainer.

  • Prof Niall Moyna is head of the school of health and human performance at DCU and ambassador for the Irish Life Health Schoool’s Fitness Challenge, which has already welcomed over 125,000 schoolchildren through its six-week fitness challenge. Register on irishlifehealth.ie
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