Winning the war against obesity one school playground at a time
Obesity is a major Irish health issue. It sets people on a fast track toward medical complications such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Obesity is the end result of an inversely proportional relationship between activity level and caloric intake.
Ireland is ranked fifth highest among 27 EU countries in incidence of childhood obesity; about one in four primary school children are overweight or obese. Overweight children have a 70-80pc chance of staying overweight their entire lives.
Studies have shown that children, who have always been the most active of the populace, are increasingly involved in sedentary pursuits such as watching television and playing computer games. It is important that they get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. According to the Growing up in Ireland Survey (2011), only 25pc of children met the recommendation, and these patterns have been shown to carry into adulthood.
Schools are a key setting for promoting physical activity and healthy living and offer two outlets for this: PE and break-time. PE alone has been shown not to meet physical activity recommendations needed for health benefits. Irish primary school pupils are allocated just over half of the EU average of 109 minutes of PE per week. Teachers report insufficient time to adequately cover all subjects due to an overloaded curriculum. Therefore, break-time is vital for promoting physical activity.
The primary curriculum advocates 40 minutes of daily recreation. Break-time can play a role in children's social, emotional and cognitive development and studies show that breaks where children can partake in physical activity led to an improvement in alertness, attentiveness and classroom behaviour. Irish school playgrounds have been described in research as "flat and uninspiring pieces of tarmac", with equipment scarce and basic. Schools should strive for playgrounds to be aesthetically pleasing with quality landscapes where formal and informal learning can take place.
Risk evaluation is crucial and should be monitored regularly. However, recent research has revealed that an over-exaggerated focus on safety issues in children's play environments (e.g. a "no running" policy) is problematic as it can lead to children being restricted from practices and experiences that are influential to their general development.
The break-time environment should encourage children to be physically active. A recent study I completed, found that the presence of fixed playground equipment at school had a significant positive effect on the fitness levels of children. Low-cost initiatives have proven very effective in contributing to children's activity levels, as shown in an array of studies from the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.
Most schools have readily available, low-cost equipment that can be utilised during break-time. A positive example of this is the American Playworks initiative, which sets up active, engaging and all-inclusive simple playground games in different zones in the school yard, and has proven successful in a number of Galway and Dublin schools.
Claire Heneghan B.Ed, MSc. Exercise and Nutrition Science (specialising in Health Promotion & Education)