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Why are our kids fat and unfit?

Thursday, December 12, 2013
Most children are not able to play football in the street like these children from Charlo Village, Penal. The reduction in play time and the reliance on things like computer games to keep children occupied are reasons that many experts have given for children’s fitness declining over the years. PHOTO: RISHI RAGOONATH

It’s likely the world did not need an official, scientific study to tell us the fitness level of children may be declining. 


In a recent study of global fitness done by the American Heart Association, researchers analysed data spanning 46 years on over 25 million children in 28 countries—and the results were hardly surprising. On average, children between nine and 17 cannot run as fast as their parents could when they were young. In fact, the study estimated children today run a mile a minute and a half slower than their parents did. 


Suffice it to say cardiovascular endurance has dwindled over the years. This means surging childhood obesity and serious health implications, which will surely follow.


Paediatrician Dr David Bratt said T&T was definitely included in that global trend, and from his clinical experience over the past 36 years, children in T&T were getting fatter and more unfit at a younger age. He said something as simple as traffic contributed to the multi-faceted problem.


“That’s one reason children are not outside playing,” he said. “There is no time for playing.”


He explained families have to wake up earlier to avoid traffic in order to get to school and work on time, and then face the same daunting problem on the way home at the end of the day. This is a small part of the bigger picture and the reason for this surge in child obesity—a change in lifestyle.


Chairman of the Port-of-Spain and Environs Sports Council Kelvin Nancoo agreed.


“When we were youngsters growing up, we played sports, all types of sports. Every day...We would play cricket, football, do track and field, pitch marbles...children were always moving,” he lamented. He said that type of constant movement and activity was fundamental.


“Now children just sit and exercise their fingers. That has brought on obesity in children.”


In the long run, Bratt said, society will pay by having to address the upsurge in diabetes, heart disease and cancer.


“It’s a huge problem, and it’s going to cost us. It’s already costing us.”


The part school plays


When asked what else was to blame, apart from the proliferation of video games, Nancoo faulted high expectations from school.


Nacoo, who is also the principal of St Michael’s School for Boys, said the curriculum, teachers and parents have added to the pressure students face when it comes to academics. He said from the days of Common Entrance to the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA), students have had to face a more rigorous and stressful workload, with less time to devote to physical activity.


“When you apply more pressure on children, when you give them more subject areas to cover, you are doing them an injustice...


Parents take away activities so their children could go to extra lessons. That is a mistake. It’s cruel to our children. 


“But they (parents) only see ‘passing for a big school.’” 


He said the emphasis was no longer on the holistic development of children, but rather being top of the class, in a prestige school, no matter the cost.


“Many, many schools do not have good PE (physical education) programmes, nor do they take part in sports.”


PE in secondary schools is one of eight core subjects, according to a source at the Ministry of Education.


“It is compulsory for all students to do at least two periods a week.”


She said while PE classes may be adequate to maintain a child’s fitness level, poor exercise and eating habits at home could counteract the effects. 


Naresh Bhola, PE teacher at Presentation College, San Fernando agreed. He said there wasn’t any need for more PE classes, as students needed to exercise and eat properly on their own.


“It’s a lifestyle. I could have them doing 100 jumping jacks—but if they go home and eat rubbish and do nothing for the rest of the week, there’s no point.”



What parents can do 


Another way life has changed is that parents have become busier. Consumed with balancing work, children and traffic. It’s easier, quicker and cheaper for a working mom to buy fast food for her family, after working all day and enduring a long commute. 


Sure, it’s easier, but Nancoo said this is not an excuse.


“You’re too busy to prepare a meal? No. You make the time for your child.”


Bhola agreed, saying parents needed to step up and take control of their diet and exercise to set a better example for their children.


Bhola said parents have described the challenge of breaking the sedentary cycle their children are accustomed to.


“It gives a child more pleasure to play video games rather than exercise,” Bhola said.


However, what made the difference Bratt said, was instilling a positive attitude to physical activity from an early age. 


Trying to get a lazy ten-year-old out of the house will be a challenge if he’s not accustomed to it, Bratt said.


“You have to start early, you cannot start when they’re ten. They already have a (taste) for TV by then.”





While there are supposed to be PE sessions in primary schools, there is one “general practitioner” for each class, who may not have a specialisation in PE. 


A source at the Ministry of Education who works on the curriculum and wished to remain anonymous, told the T&T Guardian the entire primary school curriculum was recently reviewed, and teachers at that level would be getting more support to help deliver the curriculum “across all subjects.”


With respect to PE, there will be workshops within school districts to train teachers on how to effectively instruct PE to their students, with a focus on practical exercises.




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