Early death awaits inactive kids

 Health officials reckon that alarmingly, the current generation of children are generally so inactive and obese that unless wholesale changes are made to lifestyles, they could die before their parents.
   A shocking fact but it sounds feasible in light of a recent World Health Organisation study that states that Caymanian and St Lucian children are the most inactive in the world.
   Despite the extensive sports facilities in the Cayman Islands, there is a growing problem of child inactivity and obesity.
   The study, published in The Journal of Paediatrics, looked at 72,845 schoolchildren aged 13 to 15 from North and South America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The children were surveyed between 2003 and 2007.
   The researchers defined adequate physical activity as at least an hour of exercise outside of gym class at least five days a week.
   From Argentina to Zambia, Regina Guthold of the World Health Organization in Geneva and her colleagues found most children aren’t getting enough exercise and it made no difference if they lived in a rich or a poor country.
   It seems hard to believe that Cayman should be at the bottom considering its widespread sporting excellence.
   The new boxing gym is attracting almost as many girls and women as boys, the new track is in pristine condition after hosting the CARIFTA Games over Easter and every district in Grand Cayman now has an excellent football stadium.
   On top of that the junior squash programme is coming on leaps and bounds, sailing is widely spread in schools now and affordable as a weekend pursuit and cricket participation is reaching new levels.
   Cydonie Mothersill has been a world class sprinter for over a decade, the Fraser brothers Shaune and Brett are Olympic swimmers, as were Heather Roffey and Andrew Mackay. Sprint hurdler Ronald Forbes could be amongst the medals at his second Olympics in London in 2012.
   Numerous athletes have gone to the Olympics in cycling and sailing and with all the recent international events Cayman has hosted in beach volleyball, squash and track and field, evidently there are  many youngsters aspiring to be champions.
   CARIFTA gold medallist Chantelle Morrison is the fastest 16-year-old in the world and looks set to take over the mantle from Mothersill.
   Yet they are a small demographic. Many active children are multiple sports enthusiasts in Cayman but whole swathes of youngsters are also getting minimal activity. They are the ticking time bombs needing to be reached.
   Skewed findings
   Brendan Touhey, physical education teacher at Prep Primary School does not agree with Cayman’s low ranking in the report. He feels – with some justification – that the findings are skewed.
   “The research showed that Cayman had the most sedentary kids, but in fact we were far from last in the active category,” says Touhey. “Of the 24 (not 34) countries in the survey, 19 had worse levels of activity for boys and 21 had worse activity levels for girls!  
   “So in a nutshell it would appear we might be the most sedentary but in fact our kids are pretty active in comparison to the other countries surveyed.”  
   Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Cayman Islands do have a massive problem.
Touhey says, “We ranked last basically in the third aspect of the research which dealt with active transportation to school.
   “Almost all of our kids are sent to school on the bus (or driven by parents) and don’t ride or walk. But that is a geographical issue and a roads issue, as well as climatic.”
   Touhey adds: “The sedentary lifestyles of kids are down to parents and the socio-economic reality of living in Cayman.  
   “Too many kids have time without structure, and the TV, games consoles and internet become babysitters.
   “Often both parents will need to work for financial reasons, or there may be only one caregiver, which places time demands on parents and opportunities with children.  
   “But it comes down to children not being supervised and given active and healthy options. I am not saying that all parents are to blame, but the three hours or more spent watching TV or sitting around per day that makes so many of our kids sedentary does not happen at school.
   “At our school we have two hours and ten minutes of PE per week for each child.  
   “But that is not enough to make a marked difference in their health and fitness. There are extra-curricular activities available every day but it does not meet the needs of every kid.
   “It is definitely time to up it. The cost of healthcare alone should be reason enough to take a proactive step now.  
    “Schools close at 3pm. Offices generally shut at 5pm. The two hours in between should be full of opportunities and structure so that every child is actively doing something, which can include academics such as homework.
   “Reaching the one hour activity  a day for five days a week would be challenging but a start could be made, and if you include PE time already, we are looking for an additional three or four hours per week.”
   There is a children’s health task force doing a food pilot at John Gray High School. Is there a need for something similar for exercise?  
   “We do, and we have had it already,” says Touhey. “A few years ago Carole Raymond from the UK did a review of the Island’s PE provisions and wrote a report for the government and schools.  
   “At the same time a sporting consultancy firm from London did a review of sports on the Island. But a fresh review of the provisions and opportunities for all children is needed so that we can ascertain what is missing and more importantly: why?”
   Breaking barriers
    “We need to offer opportunities and provisions that overcome the hurdles preventing participation.  
   “These are typically transportation, costs and schedule. We need to establish what works and why. After which we need to ask the children what they want.
   “Not every student wants to play in a league competitively, or wants to compete. We need to offer sporting and activity options that appeal to more people”.
   The Head teacher’s view.
   Allison Wallace is head teacher at East End Primary School.
    “For me to give an answer of any credence to the question of how we’ve reached this state, I would have to have done my own research.
   However, what I would say is, in comparing when I was growing up to now, I would have to say that this situation of being sedentary in our students might be a very high price society is paying for “progress”.
   Children no longer have to be imaginative in the games they play. Parents do not have time to teach the physical games they grew up on because they are working two and three jobs to make ends meet.
   Toys (such as iPhones, BlackBerrys, Wii Fit and computer games) are more readily available and the majority of them do not require much physical exertion.
   The issue of crime has contributed to children being encouraged to stay inside versus going outside and playing and running with friends. So they are given these ‘toys’ or the television to ensure that they stay inside.
    At East End Primary students are scheduled two hour structured PE classes. Plus 45 minutes free play time 15 minutes recess and 30 minutes after lunch.
   “Trying to fit any more time into the already busy schedule would be virtually impossible.
   I do not think that the offering of the physical activity is the issue in Cayman. The true position is many of the children do not want to take part for whatever reason.
   Even in my primary school where many opportunities are afforded the students to be active and try new things from sailing, swimming, basketball, netball, football, athletics; it is like pulling teeth to get some of them to participate.
   Some of the excuses as to why they should not take part even come from the parents. In my experience, I think that students are afraid of failing and being laughed at.
   They start off by saying that they can’t. Not realising that that they are in school to learn. Some of them just do not want to exert themselves.
   Motivation to run and play. This should be the natural instinct of all children. That a society is being called to motivate children is sad indeed.
   It will be very challenging because changing attitudes usually is. And that is what it has to be an attitude change all round. I wish I had the answer.”
   The Mothers’ view.
Sara Mackay is mother to Andrew who competed at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Now retired from competitive swimming she still turns out for the open water swims as part of a lifestyle choice.
Cayman’s inactive children are not solely an isolated problem; Sara reckons that it is a worldwide, generational thing, a function of the times. “Video games are so amazing now. Some of the sports games on X-box 360 can be mistaken for live action games at first, but with control in our hands, while sitting, doing nothing ourselves.
   Friends and family in the US and UK have just recently told me their kids are as bad if not worse than Cayman. I think the heat here half the year is a big factor. It’s especially hard to run in the heat.
    “I think the beautiful water we are surrounded by could be part of the solution. What if we challenge everyone, absolutely everyone to become capable of swimming a half mile by next year?
   We’d be stronger, healthier, sleep better, feel better, look better and be less stressed. Something about being in the water sucks the stress out of people and soothes the soul.’’
   She admits though: “I am one of those people who talks the talk but needs to act. I’ve been fighting the battle of the bulge the last 25 years. It’s such a drag.
   But I was fit as a teenager. What hope is there for kids that age who aren’t fit, when they hit middle age?
   A big part of the problem is that being overweight is such a vicious cycle. That’s why using our beautiful water would be such a good approach. And a society-wide approach could be a lot of fun too.
   Just things like water walking in waist deep water wouldn’t even mess up hairdos! We could create our own version of ocean water polo.”
   Kathy Jackson is a mother of two active children who swim extensively in coach Dominic Ross’s excellent programme.
   “In some instance we have reached this state because parents find it easier to delegate child minding to the TV and video games; or to choose fast and convenience foods instead of thoughtfully planned out dinners,” says Kathy.
   “In others we find ourselves here because, as what is still a relatively young country, we don’t have the social programmes in place which help our kids to get out.
   “It is true, we have a plethora of after school activities for children; but if a parent’s job does not give them the flexibility of taking a late lunch to take their kids to the activity, there is no organised bus system put on by the schools or by the activities to get them where they need to be.
    “I think that all Prep school students, and probably some lower high school years, would benefit from PE twice a week, especially if they are inactive outside of school.
   My nine-year-old daughter has one term of swimming this school year and there were two or three groups based on ability. For those that get to swim the programme is excellent but we need a bigger pool so that we can teach more kids on a regular basis.
   Swimming is like fishing. Teach a kid to swim and they can exercise for the rest of their life.
   Parents have to lead by example in what exercise they do, what healthy food they eat and what they do with their free time such as take walks, ride bikes and go to the beach.
   I started doing sea swims again to get my kids to do them; I now get up and run twice a week even when I don’t want to because my nine-year-old challenged me: ‘Mom, how come when you are tired you don’t get up and run but you make me get up and go to training? If swimming is good for me isn’t running good for you?’
   Government also has a role to play thinks Jackson.
   “Planning now mandates sidewalks. What about biking paths? And running trails in those areas where people run a lot such as South Sound road?
   We need national leadership like government taking an interest in school cafeteria food, government supporting private initiatives which go to the schools such as the thing that Laura Ribbins at Fitness Connection did with an insurance company or government reaching out to the private sector to step up and make this initiatives happen.
   The government could attach donation requirements to social and physical activities to business licenses or something like that.
   We need to be sure to support, encourage and publicly applaud our successful athletes such as Shaune Fraser.
   We need to show that any sport you are good at is worth doing, not just the favoured ones. Every athletic club should have to have a youth programme like rugby, swimming, squash with – whenever possible – a free element to it.”