Students need to exercise

School students will spend more time doing physical education under a new National School Curriculum, due to come into effect September 2008, Education Minister Alden McLaughlin said at a Cabinet press briefing Friday.

Mr. McLaughlin was responding to questions about a Health Services Authority study that found almost half the children entering the school system in the Cayman Islands to be overweight or obese.

He said a recent Department of Education study found that insufficient time is devoted to physical education in schools.

Mr. McLaughlin did not specify how more physical education will be fitted into what he described as an already overloaded curriculum.

But he said he would not rule-out the possibility of extending the school day if necessary.

The HSA study, which compared the weight, height and blood pressure of children entering the school system in 1987 and in 2005, found that 45.2 per cent of the children were either overweight (20.2 per cent) or obese (25.1 per cent) in 2005 – more than double the amount in 1987 (18.8 per cent overweight or obese).

Young boys have shifted from being less heavy than females in 1987 to being significantly heavier than females in 2005, the study said.

Describing the findings as alarming, the study said rates of childhood obesity in the Cayman Islands are about double that of the USA.

Children that become overweight or obese in their youth are being set up for a life of obesity – and the attendant health risks that come with it, the study warned.

‘A child with a BMI [Body Mass Index] at or above the 85th percentile [the definition of overweight] are (sic) more likely than a child who’s (sic) BMI is in the reference range to gain weight and reach obese status in adolescence.

‘This in turn sets them up for adult obesity; it has been concluded in studies that the persistence of paediatric obesity into adulthood increases according to the age at which obesity is initially present,’ it said.

‘These high incidence rates bare with them the increased likelihood of co-morbid disease in later life.’

But weight is not the study’s only concern.

It also discovered an unprecedented rise in childhood blood pressure – at a rate double what the USA Centre for Disease Control is observing amongst children in the US.

Speaking Tuesday, the report’s author, HSA Research Coordinator Dr. Laurence Vanhanswijck said the data indicated that weight is not the sole cause for the increased blood pressure amongst children.

She said it is possible blood pressure is rising because of high salt intakes amongst children, which could stem from them eating too much junk food.

Increased blood pressure levels can lead to serious health complications, the study warned.

‘A large portion of children will maintain these levels leading to enlarged hearts, protein in their urine, retina anomalies, stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, loss of vision and atherosclerosis in later life.’

Ms Vanhanswijck said it is important that parents overcome the idea that large children will grow out of their weight over time.

‘The extra fat cells that you put on as a child stay with you, and it is hard to lose that. If you are an obese child, there is a great chance that you will become an overweight or obese adult.

‘Parents need to realise that,’ she said.

Ms Vanhanswijck said the study would not have been possible without the foresight of HSA Chief Nursing Officer Hazel Brown, who initiated the data collection in 1987.

At Friday’s press briefing, Mr. McLaughlin was asked whether schools should be providing healthier food. He said it was difficult to do this without the support of parents and children.

‘We’ve learned it in particular in relation to Cayman Brac … the children complain to their parents [about healthy food being served] so the parents raise a huge ruckus about it. We had that precise problem with Cayman Brac, at the high school.’

‘It is behaviour modification and it’s going to take reinforcement right across the society, not just in the schools. Imparting to children and young people the importance of proper dieting; imparting to them the joy of sports, but also the need to stay active,’ Mr. McLaughlin said.

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