According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), childhood obesity is ‘one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century’ (World Health Organization, 2002). Since children spend such a large portion of their time in education, schools have been identified as a prime location for intervention to combat this growing problem (Cooper & Page, 2005; Naylor & McKay, 2009). Before effective intervention can be implemented, the importance of physical activity needs to be identified, and how this can assist in addressing and preventing obesity. Further, it is necessary to determine the teachers’ role, and the methods that can be utilised to promote physical activity, and minimise the barriers, to support all children to reach their potential.
Physical activity is important for children of all ages. The Department of Health and Ageing agrees, and provides two broad reasons:
‘First and foremost, it is intuitively sensible and biologically plausible that preventive health measures such as fostering a physically active lifestyle should begin early rather than later in life […] (and) There (is) sufficient evidence to conclude that physical activity is positively associated with bone mass and inversely associated with adiposity and overweight/obesity.’ (Department of Health and Ageing, 2005)
Physical activity serves a number of purposes in children and youth, and impacts the physical, cognitive and socio-emotional domains of development. This is consistently supported in the literature (Cooper & Page, 2005; Huang, Sallis, & Patrick, 2009; Naylor & McKay, 2009; Reilly, 2005; Rowland, 2007; World Health Organization, 2002). Luepker even goes so far to say that ‘The long-term health benefits of continuous physical exercise beginning in youth are both apparent and unarguable’ (1999).
In the physical domain of development, evidence has shown a number of benefits, including: cardiovascular health and fitness, bone growth and strength, muscle growth, metabolic health, and reduced risk factors for disease; which are all consistently improved by physical activity. Attributes like strength, endurance and co-ordination, and the development of gross- and fine- motor skills are also supported by regular physical activity. Another factor has been that physical activity promotes further activity (Cooper & Page, 2005). All these physical effects, especially cardiovascular and muscle development, are seen as having a positive effect on addressing and preventing obesity (Huang et al., 2009; Naylor & McKay, 2009; Reilly, 2005; Rowland, 2007). When considering the benefits of physical activity, it is important to recognise some of the barriers to children in this developmental sphere. Early adolescence is a time of physical growth and developing maturity. This can have effects where some children are taller and bigger than their peers, which can affect how they participate. The extent of physical conditioning can be a further barrier to children and adolescents, but may be the primary barrier to those already overweight or obese.
As well as providing benefits in the physical domain, physical activity can also help develop skills that link into the cognitive domain, such as hand-eye co-ordination. The cognitive benefits of exercise for children have been identified by several researchers. Ploughman claims that ”Aerobic fitness in children is associated with […] faster cognitive processing speed and […] confirmed the positive relationship between physical activity and cognitive and academic performance in school aged children’ (Ploughman, 2008). Siedentop agrees, and further claims that:
‘evidence reveals that appropriate levels of physical activity among children and youth […] are positively related to increased on-task classroom behavior, cognitive development, and academic performance’ (2009).
This implies significant benefits for educators to promote physical activity; not only will it assist in addressing and preventing obesity, but will also assist teachers in the settling of restless children, and provides children and adolescents a safe outlet for relief of tension in (McDevitt, 2010). Physical activity is that it provides the opportunity for promoting and developing lifelong healthy habits (Huang et al., 2009), and the development of a healthy body image (Snow, 2000), and self-esteem (Foster & Page, 2005). It is important to realise that the ‘early adolescent’ phase of development is where body image begins to take a prominent role, and many of this age group have not yet developed the ability to objectively process difference in body type and composition; this can lead to unrealistic expectations, and later issues with risky behaviours (McDevitt, 2010).
Closely linked with cognitive development, the socio-emotional sphere has both benefits and barriers to physical activity, and for the early adolescent, can prove to be the most beneficial, or the most damaging. Social and cultural factors such as age, ethnicity and gender have all been recognised as impacting on the level of physical activity undertaken by children and youth (Goran, Reynolds, & Lindquist, 1999; Luepker, 1999; McDevitt, 2010). Physical activity has been show to promote teamwork, peer support, and societal approval (Department of Health and Ageing, 2005; McDevitt, 2010).
Physical activity self-efficacy […] has been shown to be a consistent predictor of physical activity behaviour […] adolescents. Perceived physical competence and perceived behavioural control have also been shown to be associated with physical activity behaviour in youth. Positive expectations or beliefs about the outcomes of exercise are also salient influences on youth activity participation. Of particular importance is the belief that physical activity is fun or enjoyable. (Department of Health and Ageing, 2005)
This can lead to improvements in global self-esteem and self-worth (Hill, 2005). As Hill notes, ‘social interaction is the key to self-perception’ (2005). Physical activity can also provide opportunities for inclusivity (Huang et al., 2009). The major barrier to physical activity in this sphere is based around perceived or real peer expectations and victimisation (Hill, 2005).
The Teachers Role in Addressing and Preventing Obesity
As a significant other in a child’s life, the teacher has a definite role in combatting, or preventing obesity. Ensuring a high quality health and physical education programme, health education should be conducted early and often, incorporating all faucets of healthy living. Students should be taught both theory and practical skills to make appropriate health choices for themselves.
‘Emphasis should be on helping students develop the knowledge, attitudes and behavioural skills they need, to establish and maintain healthy eating and a physically active lifestyle’ (Story, 1999).
The teacher should provide modelling behaviour; being seen to partake in healthy eating and exercise habits can provide a strong motivator for children and early adolescents, especially where the home leisure activities are sedentary (Goran et al., 1999).
It is important to provide access and support to early adolescents to be physically active. Goran, Reynolds and Lindquist tell us that ‘studies have shown that physical activity is positively associated with access to facilities or equipment (1999). By providing a range of activities and encouraging all students to participate to their fullest capacity can assist in prevention of obesity in all adolescents, and can support those who are at risk, or already overweight to manage their weight. It is essential to avoid favouring the stronger students, as has sometimes been observed:
As students move through the system, it is increasingly evident that those who are the most skilled receive the most attention when competitive sports activities dominate. Observational studies suggest that many of the students who are in physical activity classes are standing passively while the high achieving students control the game and expend most of the energy. (Luepker, 1999)
Teachers can also play an important role in developing school policy, supporting moves to discourage the sale of unhealthy options at the school canteen, encouraging the sale of healthier’ alternatives and discouraging parents from sending children to school with ‘junk’ food. This could be incorporated with a parent education plan, sending information home to parents, and getting parents involved where possible (World Health Organization, 2002).
Methods for Teachers to Address and Prevent Obesity
In order to develop appropriate strategies for increasing physical activity, especially to address and prevent obesity, it is necessary to take a holistic approach.
‘[…] obesity is likely a consequence of pervasive influences that operate across many settings, the development of effective preventive interventions likely requires strategies that effect multiple settings simultaneously.’ (Dietz & Gortmaker, 2001)
It is important to create an environment where victimisation is not condoned or ignored (Corbin, 2000). Encouraging students and others to be supportive of each other in various efforts will have a considerable impact on physical activity motivation, especially in those overweight or obese.
‘Active Travel’ has been promoted as an effective method of encouraging physical activity. Several researchers have found links between active transport and further physical activity, during school, extracurricular activities, and on weekends (Cooper & Page, 2005; van Sluijs et al., 2009). For parents concerned about safety, promotion of initiatives such as the ‘Walking school bus’ (Dietz & Gortmaker, 2001) could be beneficial; though with psycho-social developments in early adolescents, it could be even more beneficial to empower students to use their own initiative to generate similar walking, cycling or rollerblading clubs.
An increase in the enjoyment of a topic promotes participation and retention of factual information. By incorporating physical activity in their academic subjects, utilising the ‘outdoor classroom’, providing ‘active’ projects in student weakness areas, and participating in fun, physical ‘classroom breaks’, like those mentioned in the ‘Take 10’ initiative (Stewart, Dennison, Kohl, & Doyle, 2004), teachers can provide opportunities for scaffolding knowledge in all learner types – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.
Perhaps the most important method for teachers to assist in addressing and preventing obesity is by fostering good relationships with parents.
‘Education must be combined with assistance to facilitate behavior changes in a supportive environment. This should include children, parents and teachers working together’ (Hills, 2009)
By involving parents, and keeping them informed of topics, it is possible to enlist their support for encouraging physical activity after school, and improving home and school diet.
By taking into consideration the developmental stage of early adolescence, the importance of physical activity in creating and maintaining a healthy weight, as well as numerous other factors, including cognitive and socio-emotional development is seen. Utilising the methods outlined, combined with others, and good teaching practice, teachers can be effective promoters of health, and physical activity to address and prevent obesity.
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Corbin, C. B. (2000). Helping All Students Feel Good About Physical Activity. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 9(3), 173.
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van Sluijs, E. M. F., Fearne, V. A., Mattocks, C., Riddoch, C., Griffin, S. J., & Ness, A. (2009). The contribution of active travel to children’s physical activity levels: Cross-sectional results from the ALSPAC study. Preventive Medicine, 48(6), 519-524.
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