Friday, December 04, 2009
We all know the stats - 1 in 3 North American children is overweight or obese. This is obviously of real importance from a public health standpoint, because one-third of our youth are at serious risk for numerous chronic diseases. But it also has implications for physical education teachers - overweight and obese children have specific needs, and it is the role of the physical education (PE) teacher to meet those needs. For example, obese children are reported to be less physically active, more sedentary, and have worse motor proficiency than their normal-weight peers (details here). As we have discussed before, obese kids are also at higher risk for psychological problems, and one highly publicized study even found that obese kids have lower health-related quality of life than cancer patients.
Now obviously these issues not only influence a child's ability to participate in PE, but they are all things that can be helped by a good PE program. Thus we now have Supersized PE - the first PE textbook focused explicitly on helping teachers meet the needs of overweight and obese kids. The book is broken into 7 short chapters:
- Reality Check - What Teachers Can Do Now
- A Summary of the "Overweight" Epidemic
- Living in an Overweight Body
- Top 10 Tips for Teaching Overweight Students
- Obesity - A Disability?
- The Motivation Factor
- Lesson Plans for Achieving the National [American] Standards
Some parts of the book are spot on - they mention that teachers should focus on healthy behaviours like physical activity rather than outcomes like body weight, and that teachers should employ a wide range of activities (dodgeball everyday does not make an effective PE course), and promote an inclusive, student-centered environment. They also mention several times that PE teachers should campaign for healthier lunch-options, less vending machines, and even less high-calorie juice - all great things. The chapters on obesity as a disability and ways to motivate overweight and obese children were especially informative, and there are lesson plans provided throughout the book. In general, the book was also a very easy read (it only took a couple days to get through the whole thing), and at 121 pages, it is very approachable.
While the Foreward to the book calls the writing style "folksy", at times it came across as quaint or even naive. The information is often vague, and the citations are often for textbooks or organizations, rather than actual research articles. Important issues like the role of body fat distribution, and the fact that body weight and body fat are not completely synonymous, are completely avoided. Although the authors mention that healthy behaviours are more important than body weight, they never mention that it is likely healthier to be overweight and active than to be normal weight and sedentary. In fact, the focus is almost entirely on body weight at every turn. The "Health at Every Size" message is an important one, and one that people need to hear. This book would have been an ideal place for that message.
The link between obesity and poor motor skills is also a critical message for PE teachers - children with poor motor skills are less likely to engage in physical activity, and more likely to be overweight or obese. Without those fundamental movement skills, it is unlikely that any child will develop a lifelong love for physical activity. Unfortunately motor skills receive only a few sentences in the entire book, when they deserve a full chapter, if not a book of their own.
Unfortunately a few parts of the book are problematic to say the least. For example, after a nice explanation of weight-bias, the authors suggest that university physical education programs should consider mandatory BMI standards for all teacher candidates. One of the reasons is that "fit looking (e.g. non overweight) individuals are hypothetically more likely to be considered for teaching jobs than significantly overweight candidates". First off - BMI standards are clearly discriminatory against overweight individuals. Second - they are giving advice on how to use weight discrimination as a way to improve your chances of getting hired. That is not ok. And let's remember that body weight is influenced by a multitude of factors, only some of which are under an individual's control, as well as the importance of physical activity and proper diet regardless of body weight. They are right to say that PE teachers should lead by example, but are completely wrong about how that should be achieved.
Another cringe-worthy moment is from a lesson plan titled "Obesity Awareness". In this lesson, students get to feel what it is like to be overweight. How? By piling all of their textbooks into their backpacks, and seeing how much harder it is to walk around the schoolyard with that extra weight on their backs. Really? I can't believe that anyone ever thought that was a good way to help students learn healthy behaviours or develop a lifelong love for physical activity.
If we are going to teach our kids how to live healthy, active lifestyles (which we absolutely must do from both an ethical and a public health standpoint) PE is a great place to start. Both in Canada and the USA, elementary school PE is typically taught by general class-room teachers (as opposed to PE specialists). However well-intentioned, these individuals receive little or no training in how to teach PE, let alone how to cater to children with a wide-array of diverse needs and abilities, which means that this book fills a very important niche. The authors deserve a lot of credit for opening a dialogue on these important issues, which I think will be the most important contribution of this book. However, the lack of scientific information, and the at-times questionable advice, will severely limit its effectiveness.
Special thanks to Dr Meghann Lloyd for lending me her copy of the book for this review. Supersized PE can be purchased through Amazon.com and through the National Association for Sport and Physical Education website (the price is much lower on the NASPE website). For more comprehensive resources for teachers who will be instructing PE for any age, I strongly recommend you check out the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association website. Although the information is not obesity-specific, they have detailed curriculum resources for all grades.
Have a great weekend!
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