Increasing time allocated to physical activity in schools (june 2002)
The prevalence of obesity and overweight in Quebec’s youth is reaching alarming proportions. While overweight doubled within the last twenty years, obesity in children has more than tripled to affect more than 10% of the 6-17 year-olds, this figure is increasing by about 1% per year.
Obesity is a severe disorder and is a risk factor for many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and dyslipidemia. An increasing number of type 2 diabetes cases, usually found in adults, is diagnosed in teenagers. Obesity has adverse effects in the psychosocial development of overweight youth such as depression, low self-esteem, discrimination, and social rejection. In Canada, the direct cost of obesity exceeds 1.8 billion dollars, or 2.4% of health care expenditures for all diseases. According to the World Health Organization, obesity could soon have health impacts as severe as tobacco use.
The rapid increase in the prevalence of overweight prevalence in the young is mainly caused by an environment favouring overconsumption of high-calorie foods and physical inactivity. Across Canada, young Quebeckers are the champions of physical inactivity: 70% of them do not meet the minimum requirements of physical activity. With a weekly average less than one hour of physical activity, Quebec’s schools have the worst record through Canada and the world, where generally more than two hours per week are dedicated to physical activity.
The mission of school is growth through knowledge, as well as physical and social development. After all, a mind is never as healthy as one grown into a healthy and fit body. Being physically active is critical for good fitness, but it is equally important for the development of motor and social skills, for developing team spirit as well as for learning to enjoy and be excited by challenges. Since the educational value of physical activity is such a well known fact, why then reduce it to a mere 60-minute period once every 5 or 7-day cycle, which is less than 10 minutes per day, theory included?
There are many ways of extending physical activity in the youth to an adequate level. The basic skills acquired through a weekly 150-minute period of physical activity (30 minutes per day), as proposed by many different national and international organizations, would last through adulthood. This level of physical activity is viewed as an essential minimum by the Chair. Incidentally, this is the minimal recommendation that the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport du Québec was unable to implement, despite the recommendations of the public health directors, Canada’s Physical Activity Guide for Youth, Kino-Québec’s scientific committee and The Estates General on Education. The current the recommendation of a single 60-minute period of physical activity for every 5, 6 or 7-day cycle is inappropriate.
In order to do so, school boards, school principals and institutional councils need to have the necessary means to take responsible decisions.
Currently, options are very limited because physical education is a mere part of optional subjects that must share 180 minutes a week. In such a context, the process of time allotment to the various disciplines is only intended to exonerate the Department of Education from blame.
The solution for the Department of Education is to ascertain that primary and secondary schools of the province ensure 150 minutes of physical education per week, that is a minimum of 30 minutes per day. In addition, schools should engage in providing extracurricular programs and extended intramural animation services, and in promoting active transportation so that children could reach a daily total of 60 minutes of physical activity, as recommended by Canada’s Physical Activity Guide for Youth and Children. Also, parents need to restrict the time they allow their children to spend in inactive recreation such as television, video games and computers.
Without a concerted action of all intervening parties (schools, Department of Education, health network, government, municipalities, parents, universities, community organizations) in order to prevent the spread of obesity and overweight, we may have to face an unbearable health care burden when today’s children become tomorrow’s adults. Society may have to face very costly additional healthcare expenditures for its lack of long-term vision and political will. Failing to invest in preventive education will have inevitable consequences. Taking action is a priority!