The ever-growing problem of childhood obesity and lack of exercise among South African children is gaining media and expert attention.
A number of speakers at a symposium on 'Kids, Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyle' in October 2004 repeatedly emphasised that South African children are just as vulnerable as children in the rest of the world when it comes to gaining weight.
It is estimated that one in five children is either overweight or obese. In South Africa this alarming problem is being exacerbated by the fact that most schools no longer feature sport or physical education as part of their curriculum.
Then there are the problems of modern life: safety issues often prevent children from playing or taking part in sport; children who live in high-rise flats don't get to play and run around; children who are glued to their computer screens or sitting in front of the TV all day long also never get to burn up any energy.
If slothful children (keep in mind that this sloth is usually not due to any fault of their own) still eat foods that are high in fat and highly refined, or drink endless litres of sweetened cold drinks, their fate is practically sealed. These children gain weight, which makes them even less likely to participate in physical activities, and so the vicious cycle of eating, not exercising, gaining weight, and getting depressed and ostracised is started.
What can be done?
Speakers at the symposium recommended that if we want to turn around and stop this childhood obesity epidemic, we need to do the following:
- The Department of Education needs to bring back physical education as part of the school curriculum at all our schools.
- School sport should be a right, not a privilege, and all children should participate, not just the top athletes, and cricket, rugby, hockey and netball players in the school.
- Funding should be made available to provide sports facilities that will have the widest impact on the physical fitness of all the children at a specific school, for example laying out a sports field where children can play a variety of sports is a better all-round investment than to build a swimming pool.
- Teachers should be trained to encourage and assist children to participate in sport and physical education and taught about balanced diets that can prevent weight gain.
- Be aware of your child's weight and physical activity levels – check what your child does in the afternoons and intervene if he/she does nothing but sit in front of the computer or TV.
- Find out what physical activity is offered at your local school. If there are no sport facilities or if no attempt is made to ensure that your child does something active every day, get proactive and help teachers to organise some type of exercise. For example, most parents can afford to buy a piece of rope that can be used for skipping and most teachers could supervise children skipping for 20 minutes a day.
- If your school does not provide any sports facilities, find out how you can raise money so that a simple facility such as the sports field mentioned above could be made a reality.
- Help your children to be active - find a safe place where they can play and encourage them to play with their friends.
- If you can afford it, let your child join a gym or a sports club.
The private sector
- According to newspaper reports, a number of gyms and sports institutes have mobilised themselves to help children to get more active.
- One report cites a project undertaken by Virgin Active gyms to make exercise facilities available to children of all economic backgrounds.
- Another recent media release reported that the Sports Science Institute of South Africa has started a Funky Fitness Programme for obese and inactive children.
Perhaps the most encouraging news to date is the introduction of a Charter for Physical Activity and Sport for Children and Youth under the leadership of Dr Karen Sharwood at the Medical Research Council Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine in Cape Town.
The Charter includes the following points:
- All SA children and youth have the fundamental right to be physically active and to play sport.
- Cooperation is encouraged between all role players including the Government, parents and sporting organisations to provide opportunities for children and youth to take part in safe physical activity and sport.
- The Government and the private sector are called on to provide the infrastructure and safe access to sport and physical activity.
- The protection of children and youth at all levels when participating in sport and physical activity is essential.
Awareness is growing
It is evident that the problem identified at the 'Kids, Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyle' symposium is receiving attention and we can hope that soon all children in South Africa will be afforded the chance to take part in school sport and physical activity in a safe environment. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)
(Reference: Di Caelers, There is a solution for overweight children, Pretoria News, 26 April 2005, p. 10)