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28.03.18
Education

Obesity, Poverty & the Power of Choice: Giving Kids a Healthy Education

Two Young Boys Leaping Off a Tree Stump

Every week, there’s a new headline about the horrors of childhood obesity. With the scale of the problem now at crisis level, there’s no denying the impact of inactive, calorie dense lifestyles on our kids’ health. The epidemic is, perhaps, most visible for teachers. They’re the ones spending eight hours a day with youngsters and seeing waists expand, year on year.   

More than anybody else, teachers are acutely aware of the limitations associated with obesity. They’re also assigned a huge amount of responsibility, even with dwindling budgets and little control over the social inequalities stunting many communities. It’s a tough job, but one that schools continue to embrace.

Unfortunately, they’re facing an uphill battle. After a decade of public health campaigns, obesity rates are unprecedented. In 2017, government stats revealed huge differences between affluent and deprived areas. It suggests that policies designed to fight childhood obesity are failing to address the impact of social environment.

Childhood Obesity: A Modern Epidemic

Twenty years ago, obesity was viewed as a simple imbalance. It was caused by eating too much and moving too little. It was a disease for people with ample choice and no control. Today, of course, we know better. Kids from deprived neighbourhoods, with fewer choices and opportunities, are 20-60% more likely to be overweight.  

It’s a complex situation, with myriad influences, but choice is a central issue. Even modest portions can be destructive when heavily processed and full of saturated fat. Add the challenge of finding, affording, and making time for physical activities and you’ve got a perfect storm of inactivity and poor nutrition.  

Framing obesity as a personal decision ignores the fact that the chips are stacked against low income families. Takeaways crowd into deprived neighbourhoods. Parents are lured by deals on sugary ready meals, sandwiches, and cooking sauces. Even physiology creates traps. Doctors say obesity dulls the taste buds and drives a compulsion for salty, fatty foods.  

The Power of Supportive Environments

Poverty creates huge challenges for adults. They’re mountains for primary age kids with no impulse control or knowledge of nutrition. So, perhaps it’s time to stop asking who’s to blame. Our children aren’t choosing diabetes, heart disease, asthma, or impaired mobility. They’re shaped by the environments we build for them.

We have the power to change those environments.

1. Increase Participation in PE

Among primary age kids, PE participation is rarely an issue. Before adolescence arrives, most are unselfconscious and eager to move. Any obstacles are likely to be practical and can be solved with tactful policies. For instance, it’s helpful to have a dress code for PE lessons. It ensures everybody looks the same and nobody stands out for their choice of clothing.   

Preferably, branded shirts and trainers should be banned. Studies say plain plimsolls are better for the feet than modern trainers anyway. Store spare kits for kids who break the dress code, forget their clothes, or (most importantly) struggle to afford and maintain one. Sickness and injury are the only acceptable reasons for a child to miss out on movement.

2. Build a Healthy School Culture

In 2017, a New York study found that water fountains in lunch halls are more effective than taxes on sugary drinks and low-calorie meals. This is backed up by nutritionists, who say limiting drinks to water could significantly reduce obesity levels. On average, the strategy would cost schools around £12 per pupil, for the duration of an education.  

It’s proof that positive change can be simple and affordable. Similarly, many schools are fighting inactivity by introducing movement to core lessons. Primary schoolers are naturally fidgety. Why not harness that energy and use physical movement to tell stories in English, Maths, and Science class? Our Movement of the Day videos are an easy way to squeeze exercise into any lesson.

3. Invest in the Future

The key to success is sustainability. We know that short term limits are largely ineffective. Treating the symptoms of the epidemic – obesity, heart disease, mood disorders – won’t fix the problem. Once again, it comes down to choices and their availability. Schools can’t vanquish crisps, pop, and chocolate, but they can make it easier to choose differently.

Fitness monitoring, via apps and digital platforms, turns the obesity conundrum into a solvable problem. For example, collecting PE scores, grades, and stats is a great way to identify tangible goals. The results of any health drive are bound to better if you know what needs to be improved, how much work is involved, how long it will take, and what impact it will have on future performance.

Amaven specialises in physical conditioning for primary schools. With our digital platform, it’s easy to monitor fitness, build bespoke PE programmes, and transform the lives of pupils.

Call us on 0161 300 9172 or email info@amaven.co.uk to request a demo. The first school term is free!