"Cyprus Mail"

State worry as kids get fatter
By Alexia Saoulli
(archive article - Sunday, July 27, 2008)

AS A NEW survey shows worrying numbers of school children are overweight, the ministry of education has said schools alone cannot fight the childhood obesity epidemic.

Obesity cannot be solved simply by increasing Physical Education (PE) lessons. Its an issue that involves a lot of factors including parents and society as a whole, said Physical Education Inspector for Primary Education and Head of Health Programmes for Primary Education, Onisiforos Ioannou.

Statistics released this week reveal that of 2,500 children tested in Paphos and Strovolos, four out of ten primary school children were obese and two out of ten kindergarten children are overweight.

The majority of children also had high cholesterol and blood pressure, the statistics showed.

Worse still, the growing obesity rate meant children as young as eight had high cholesterol. This then put them at greater risk of developing coronary artery disease and other health related problems in later life, he added.

Its appalling, he said.

Ioannou encouraged adults and parents to become more involved in creating the right environment for children to have healthy options.

Children cannot change the environment on their own. They have to learn to make decisions to be healthy and not just be fed information about being healthy. A lot of children come to school already obese so PE is not going to solve the problem, he said.

An EU funded Shape Up programme implemented at Nicosias Lakatamia Municipality had been hugely successful, and there are now discussions to extend the programme to other schools. The idea had been to encourage children to come up with solutions for a healthier lifestyle, including a change in diet and more physical activity.

Parents and teachers must work together to create an environment that doesnt make children obese but teaches them to lead a healthier lifestyle instead. It is our duty as adults to create a healthy environment and to set an example for children by being more active, he said.

Given the opportunity, more children would become more active. A pilot programme introduced two years ago at Tsirio primary school in Limassol was testament to this. The programme involves students voluntary participation in skip rope and cycling activities after school.

In the morning parents sometimes come in and play basketball with the kids. This is motivation for the children, he said.

Ioannou said obesity was an international issue.

It is not so much considered a trend but an epidemic that is continually growing, he said.

The problem was a given and particularly prevalent in developed countries, with Cyprus no exception, he said.

It is predominantly worse among the low to middle socioeconomic strata of developed societies because junk food is an easy option, he said.

Working parents simply found it easier to give their children junk food than to prepare healthy options. The same applied to exercise.

Thirty-six-year-old Maria Antoniou has three children in primary school and is well aware of the obesity problem.

A lot of times I think parents are to blame. I know an eight-year-old girl who is a size 14 and her parents give her a huge sandwich for her snack and money for the canteen. I think they are under the delusion that as she gets older the weight will simply drop off, she said.

Although her children had a sweet tooth, they were not allowed to eat chocolate more than three times a week.

Theyre only allowed a piece of chocolate or two fingers of a KitKat, she said.

Crisps and biscuits were not kept in her kitchen cupboards as that was too much of a temptation for her offspring.

Food was rarely fried in her home and pulses were on the menu a minimum of two times a week. As for takeaway foods, that was limited to delivery pizza once a fortnight, she said.

I dont want them to learn bad habits. If they learn to eat well now, theyll eat well as adults. Their father and I try to set an example by showing hem the right way to eat, she said.

Antoniou admitted that she had her mother to cook for her in the evening and her children ate with her aunt at lunchtime.

Its a huge help. Because I work it would be very tiring to have to go home and cook. Nevertheless, I still would do it rather than feed them junk food that is high in fat and sugar, she said.

Her children went to school with a packed lunch made up of a sandwich, piece of fruit and fruit juice.

On the occasion I do give them money to get something from the canteen they have a sausage roll or pizza. Imagine if they ate from the canteen every day, she said.

The 36-year-old said she believed the fact that her children took dancing lessons outside school also helped keep them fit and healthy.

If they relied on PE at school theyd never get any exercise. They just play football or basketball. Is that being physically active?

In the Education Ministrys defence over the content and frequency of PE lessons, Ioannou said it had diverted its focus from competition towards inclusion.

In the past our goal had been to find two or three good athletes. Now our goal is for all primary school children to learn that they can exercise and have a right to physical activity, he said.

Schools no longer focused on Track and Field competitions as this sent out the wrong message to children that they were not good enough to take part in sports.

The focus in procedure is not to find the best athlete but to send out the message that every child can be active and has his or her own performance. One can jump one metre and another four metres. When the focus had been to find the best, nine out of 10 students were sidelined, he said.

At present PE is offered twice a week as part of the curriculum. Ioannou thought this was too little and hoped that it would change when the schools curriculum came under review as part of the Educational Reform.

He said PE was currently offered daily at 15 all-day schools and that its introduction had been successful.

They can choose karate, or ping pong or tennis. We try to offer as wide a variety of sports so that students learn physical activity encompasses a whole range of activities, he said.

Copyright Cyprus Mail 2008