07 February 2011

Bring back school sport for better health

Let's make sure that every child will get an opportunity to take part in school sport. Healthy, active children grow into healthy active adults, says DietDoc.


Let's make sure that every child will get an opportunity to take part in school sport. Healthy, active children grow into healthy active adults, says DietDoc.

It is not every day that I see a headline in the sporting news that not only catches my attention, but also makes me optimistic that something positive will be done for the health of our children. "New plan for sport in schools" published by the Sport24 website, did just that last Thursday. In this article, it was announced that the Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula “will along with the basic education department, make an effort to use school sport to reach transformation targets in sport in South Africa”. The press release went on to state that Minister Mbalula intends making sport compulsory at all of the 30 000 schools in this country.

My first thought was that this move may well make a great contribution to the health of school-going children and help to combat childhood obesity.

Different agendas

Later on I realised that the Minister and the nutrition fraternity have different agendas: Minister Mbalula intends to support transformation in sport and level the playing fields, while those of us who have been urging the powers that be to re-introduce sport as a compulsory subject at our nation’s schools want to do something positive for the health of learners. But as a pragmatist I welcome that sport will be re-introduced to the school curriculum, because it just may help to tip the scales in favour of healthier children.

Shocking statistics

In May last year I was shocked by the statistics published on overweight and obesity in children. According to the South African Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS), up to 10% of South African teenagers and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 that were surveyed, are obese. In later life, 56% of adult South African women are either overweight (with a BMI exceeding 25) or obese (with a BMI above 30) (Wordsmiths, 2010).

Draft legislation

At that time, a draft policy submitted by the Department of Basic Education together with the Department of Sport and Recreation, was published in the Sunday Times (2010). The draft legislation proposed to make our children more active. According to Prega Govender in the Sunday Times, “the draft legislation stipulates that every school must offer at least two sporting codes per school term.” In addition, every school will be expected to make physical education available to learners (Govender, 2010).

This intended legislation was good news indeed. There is a wealth of scientific evidence that indicates that physical activity plays a major role in preventing overweight and obesity. In fact, some experts believe that physical activity is the most important factor in helping young people lose weight, as too much emphasis on dieting can lead to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in impressionable and vulnerable young people.

I expressed the hope in one of my 2010 DietDoc articles, that the draft legislation will be passed into law so that each and every school can ensure that their pupils participate in regular physical activity. Not much has been heard about this legislation since, but with Minister Mbalula’s support, we may just achieve something positive at schools to slow down the obesity epidemic in South Africa.

Speeding up the process

Nearly a year has gone by since the report about the draft legislation was published, and it still has not been passed into law. In view of the interest shown by Minister Mbalula, we hope that the process will be fast-tracked and that all children will soon be allowed to participate in sport and physical activity as part of their curriculum. The faster, the better.

Potential pitfalls

One of the pitfalls that I envisage, is that if too much emphasis is placed on finding and nurturing future sports stars, then the rest of our learners may not reap the full benefits of school sport.

Minister Mbalula as quoted in the Sport24 article, says that be intends to introduce a “massive school sport framework” and that he “wants to see school sport being connected to sporting federations and involve talent searches”. While this is indeed a worthwhile endeavour, it does set alarm bells ringing.

As a nutritionist I would like to see all children at our schools participating in sport so that they reap the health benefits of physical activity, not just potential top players.

We all know that it is mainly the first team soccer and rugby players who get all the attention, while the members of the Under-7 E Team don’t get a look in. Let’s make sure that every child, no matter how much talent, or lack of talent, he or she has, will get an opportunity to take part in school sport.

Many benefits

Physical activity has so many benefits, ranging from enhanced muscle coordination to weight reduction. It also improves blood circulation, helps to strengthen muscles and increase concentration. Anyone who has ever done regular physical activity, no matter how basic (such as brisk walking, skipping or swimming), will attest to the fact that it also makes you feel much more positive about yourself and helps to control depression.

So many of our young people are stressed and depressed because of the negative influences of modern life. School sport is one thing that can help them to build their confidence and turn their lives around. But only if all children are given the chance to do sport, not just the ones that may one day wear a Bafana Bafana, Protea or Springbok jersey.

An urgent appeal

My appeal to Minister Mbalula, the legislators and the Departments of Basic Education and Sport, is that they ensure that this new programme touches the lives of all youngsters in South Africa. Healthy, active children grow into healthy active adults.

- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, February 2011)                                                         


(Govender, P (2010). Plan to fight obesity among children. Draft policy seeks to make sports and physical education compulsory. Sunday Times, May 16, 2010, p.12; Sport24 (2011). New plan for sport in schools. Published on 3 February 2011:;  Wordsmiths (2010). The grave truth about obesity. Media Release issued on behalf of DNAlysis, 26 April 2010, By e-mail) 

Read more:

Top 10 health tips for kids
Combat childhood obesity
20 proven benefits of exercise

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