Kids Fitness: Missing the Point… Again

kids fitness

By Dr. Kwame M. Brown

It would help to read the following article before reading this post, but I will try to summarize below.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/features/article1689463.ece

The title of the article: “Is PE a waste of time?”, by Barbara Lantin of the Sunday Times. Yet another provocative title. I guess that’s useful, but the problem is that most do not read through articles like this. I do. So, I am going to first communicate that this title is not supported at ALL by the contents.

The gist here is the author and others grossly misinterpreting some longitudinal research done in the EarlyBird Diabetes Study in England.

The purpose of the study was to look at potential causal factors in the development of Type II (obese) diabetes. They studied overall activity levels of kids, and observed that no matter the activity level offered kids, they chose their own activity level (opting out or in) and effort level.

The researchers concluded from this that activity level must be genetically predetermined by some “activitystat” gene.

[dna]

Nice hypothesis, but there is one major problem with this conclusion:

Genes are old. The problems with rampant childhood obesity are relatively new. Therefore, we must consider… Gene expression itself is heavily determined / influenced by environment.

I am certain that such a genetically influenced trend like an “activitystat” exists.
To attribute it as the sole cause of many kids getting little to no exercise and kids fitness non existent at all is a fallacy.

They make some really strong conclusions on their website (while fighting for what is reportedly an unlikely funding renewal):

http://www.earlybirddiabetes.org/findings.php

Unfortunately, they make definitive statements like:

“Children’s activity not determined by environmental opportunity Green spaces and sports centres do not influence the physical activity of children Like most things biological, a child’s activity level seems to be ‘set’ by the brain, and therefore strongly defended against change”

What they are missing: No matter what exists in the environment – children don’t have cars. If the parent does not bring, the child does not go! Anyone who works with children every day would know this. So to look just at the presence of green spaces and centres “around” where the child lives is an insufficient parameter.

The author fails in the article “Is PE a waste of time” and the researchers fail in the findings section of their own website to recognize the interaction of availability of play spaces in the neighborhood with the will of the parent, despite saying right above…

“Obese children – parents unaware and unconcerned. Today’s parents are oblivious of their children’s weight. Parents are key partners in the drive to halt obesity, but will have little impact unless educated to recognize the problem”
So, let me get this straight: You are making the conclusion that low activity is genetically predetermined and highly resistant to change, but recognize parental education as a major factor? How can both be true? C’mon SON!!!

Now, I will turn my attention to the title “Is PE a waste of time”. Clearly not, if well designed, by their own admission, because also in the findings section of the EarlyBird website is the following:

Children who keep active are no lighter, but they are metabolically healthier: The UK and US Governments advise at least 60 minutes moderate physical activity every day.

Only 42% of the EarlyBird boys and 11% of the girls met this guideline consistently over the three-year period from 5-8yr. Importantly (because governments use BMI as their outcome measure), there were no differences in the trend for BMI over the four time points in either sex, but the more active children became metabolically healthier.

The study questions the utility of BMI as the outcome measure of physical activity programmes in children and also whether the bar for girls should be lowered (girls systematically record less physical activity than boys). (Metcalf BS – Arch Dis Child 2008).

Look at the last statement above – BMI has been consistently used as a parameter for years in studies on childhood obesity / inactivity. This is why the article and many others are missing the point. This is not about weight. It is about the habits that CREATE the higher weight in some kids, but adversely AFFECT ALL CHILDREN.

In conclusion:

Despite my bashing this study, it provides some really valuable information on kids fitness. Pretty well designed and executed (it seems), the EarlyBird study helps us delve deeper in to the causal factors in childhood obesity/inactivity.

My quarrel is with the conclusions made by some of the researchers, and with the result that this will have in creating a certain appearance to the layperson. As an aside, I never use the term layperson in an insulting way. I know very little about solar panel engineering, so I am a layperson. It has nothing to do with intelligence level, just amount and intensity of study

Is PE a waste of time? If you only care about what children weigh when left to their own devices, yes. But yet again, I feel compelled to say as I often have – obesity is the sneeze.

Physical play, when done with children’s needs (and yes, wants) in mind, treats the disease of inactivity and lack of physical enjoyment. PE that concentrates on caloric expenditure and measuring BMI treats the symptom. This placates politicians and statisticians, but does very little for children.

Children need thoughtful play time and play spaces dedicated to and designed for their natural proclivities. They also need time playing with adults. Furthermore, adults need to be proactive in providing healthy foods to support the play.

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12 Responses

  1. john moon says:

    What awaste of money this study is . You are what quantity of food you eat,exercise is helpfull
    but not a must.I think bad parenting in the age group studied is the most likley cause,and this age range is most critical to start on the right health track in life.Why is it we always want some study to give us an excuse for our lack of resolve

  2. Cory says:

    Firstly, I think that these studies are important but as noted in the response some conclusions seem to be overreaching and the preference to use the grossly outdated BMI system to record data is also suspect.

    I think its incredibly insensitive and reductive to label someone a bad parent simply because they may not be aware of the influence they have on their child’s eating and exercise habits. Perhaps they are less savvy about nutrition than we think they ought to be but it doesn’t mean they don’t treat their children well, provide for them, or have their best interests at heart. Accusing someone of bad parenting is the quickest way to have the door slammed in your face and does nothing to solve this problem we’re so desperately seeking answers to.

    I agree there may be some confirmation bias in that research suggests genetic tendencies yet some will espouse these as gospel and reasons why they cannot exercise. As mentioned above, the research shows little in the way of environment influencing a healthy lifestyle for the long-term. We know what does promote healthy living and ways to promote that in children of this age should be the focus, rather than the merits of PE classes and whether or not activity level is calibrated in the womb.

  3. I’ve taught PE for 15 years… from K-12. I’ve taught in a school that is in an affluent area, with parents who are highly-involved and interested in the best interest of their child/children. I’ve also taught in a low-economic area where there is much less parental involvement (in both Academics and Fitness/Nutrition)…

    Although I never performed a study, I can tell you through observation that the students in the ‘rich’ area were far more ‘fit’ than those in the ‘poor’ side of town.

    It comes down to 2 things…

    1. The Parents in the affluent side of town would make sure their child/children ate a healthy breakfast before school, and provided them with healthy food for lunch. The Parent (usually broken homes with one Parent, Grandparents or Guardians taking care of the Children) often sent the Child to school with no breakfast. (the Breakfast provided by the School is nothing more than candy disguised as food)

    2. Students from the affluent side of town were exposed to healthy foods, with balanced meals. Heck, their parents want to keep in shape… and pass it on to their kids. The Students from the ‘poor’ side of town often eat cheap food (on a small budget this is often the only choice) and the food quality was also poor. Cheap food is filled with fillers, saturated fats, trans fats, sugars and preservatives.

  4. ian smith says:

    John you say: You are what quantity of food you eat,exercise is helpful you obviously have know idea about exercise or life Quantity? tell a body builder that he eats to much? and just because you Don’T look fat does not mean you are healthy… you get healthy with exercise it is not helpful man it is a necessity to long life do your home work, Train hard Live Long or Dont train and live little

  5. Richard Holmes says:

    Good repost Kwame. There is a big onus on our teachers, coaches etc. bigger than is necessarily appreciated. I plan to do my part, no matter how little, but a galvanised effort is imperative.

  6. John Aikenhead says:

    In today’s children it seems that any activity is based upon the premise that this is a training for a particular sport. How many young children are running, jumping, shooting a basketball, kicking a soccer ball without an assumption that this person plays that sport. Before the video craze, cable or satellite TV, playing was exactly what you did. If you liked a sport you played on a team. Maybe we should start a sport called “healthyliving”. Parents could then send their children to camps and clinics in order to be a “healthyliver” with no college scholarship but hundreds of thousands of dollars saved on medical procedures and medication over the childs lifetime

  7. Michelle Y. Hill says:

    I definitely agree with you. There are so many components to children’s physical activity, obesity and PE. I think that most studies over simplify them. First of all, we need to address the Parent’s level of activity. If the parents aren’t active that can affect the children’s level of activity.

    Also Physical Education was never really physical education. It was usually “Sports Education” and if you didn’t like sports you really didn’t have any alternative for physical activity ( dance, creative movement,martial arts, gymnastics). Not to mention the self-esteem issues and body image issues that occur even at young ages- especially for girls or if a PE teacher was ever equipped to help young students feel better about themselve whether they were obese or not (Which also can determine a child’s physical activity level).

    Also to attribute a child’s physical activity to some activitystat gene is very dangerous. I might be going out on a limb here- but, it reminds of some of the stereotypical mindsets that believed that certain africian-americans were more physically capable for certain activities. If society starts embracing this genetic-type of thinking I am afraid that people would start to pre-determine a child’s physical abilities and there potential for physical activities without even giving them a chance. And I can speak from experience, I believe that is very painful for a child and can be determental to their physical and mental health.

    I have so much more that I can say. This is a very dear subject to me. Thank you for addressing it.

  8. Steven says:

    For a start, let’s look at this from a general statistics perspective. Here is one study that appears to contradict the results of many others. That alone should be cause for researchers (and reporters) to look a liitle more closely. Even if the results do actually hold up after careful examination of the data (I still remain sceptical), then a careful researcher will not proclaim that these new results suddenly invalidate a large body of existing study information. The proper followup when significantly different results are observed is to determine what other contributing factors have been present in the new study.
    For myself, this one study hasn’t change my view on the health value of exercise and fitness.

  9. Laura says:

    All the comments are succinct and correct in some form or fashion, but I agree wholeheartedly with Steve Preston. The school lunch program is mostly sugar filled from their bagel, sweet rolls, toast, orange juice, chocolate milk filled with low nutrition addititives, to their hamburgers, corn dog, pizza, or mexican casserole which looks like hog swill, to potato chips, corn chips, soda water or sweet tea offering in school cafeterias…which are basically sugar producers in the body. The school lunch program used to be fresh foods, three course and nutritious.
    Now you cannot find a fresh vegetable, or fresh meat or fresh bread or fresh cooked pasta in any lunch program. The foods come prebreaded, prepared in some distant kitchen…loaded with who knows what fillers and is valued by the school cafeteria as “Quick” and easy to cook.
    There is NO ONE SIZE fits all food pyramid regardless what the USDA wants to tell you. The obesity problem came into being since the gerrymandering of the diet in the 70’s to push more CARBOHYDRATES on the population with scare tactics about the BADNESS of red meat, eggs, bacon, pork, etc and the emulation of tons and tons of carbs; ie breads, cookies, chips, which are virtually unrecognizable from the product that leaves the farm. Meat cannot be adulterated too much without consumer rejection, but carbs can be adulterated with additives to make palatable and have a LONG shelf life. Did you know that crackers taste the same made today as they will in 10 years if never opened???
    I could go on and on about this but it is virtually impossible to lose weight when your pancreas or other organs are compromised because of sugar or empty carbohydrates other toxic additives in foods.

  10. Kara Kelly says:

    Hey Gang,
    I’ve been doing alot of research on the role of hormones – the adrenal glands in particular – which are responsible for the body’s ability to handle stress, regulate the body’s ability to recover, resist fatigue, and a host of many other tasks.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if some children were suffereing from hormonal imbalances, leaving them worn out and energetically dull.
    The American Way of Living (the First-World way of Living, really) puts a great deal of stressors on the Adrenal system that COULD, I hypothesize, wear some kids out enough that they don’t have the energy/desire/motivation to participate in activity as designed by others.
    From pressure to perform at school, dysfunctions in the family or home setting, social pressure from not fitting in or looking like everyone else, POOR NUTRITION…TOXIC ENVIRONMENTS (pollution, etc).
    Is anyone looking at this?
    What do you think?

  11. Dr. Kwame M. Brown says:

    @John:

    I cannot tell you how much the tone of your post saddens me. IMO, it is an immature view to pick a single scapegoat for a problem. You picked parents. Easy pick. The fact is:

    The blame is shared by us all. At least all of us adults. Our whole culture (globally with regard to industrialized nations) has been slowly transformed to one of consumption, flash, and convenience. The good news: We are full of amazing people and amazing children all over the world. We have the tools to solve this. We each have a role to play.

    As far as research goes: This study was FAR from a waste of money. What a reactionary thing to say! I understand your emotion and sentiment. There is no such thing as a perfect research study (except the small insignificant ones). They took a big cut at the ball here and overreached. But it should not be condemned, that’s throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

    What we need here is open discourse, in which we pick apart the limitations of the research, and use what is useful. The other value of research is that it brings up more (and better focused) questions, like everyone has here. I am grateful for their study. Look at all the great ideas and discussion it sparked!

    Great comments all.

    Some succinct ideas for solutions:

    Create a physical culture in schools, and start early.

    Help kids build gardens and learn where food comes from.

    Work with parents. If they are resistant, be grateful for the opportunity to keep trying. Few problems worth solving are solved overnight.

    Help put a stop to the hyper competitive sports environment. Think inclusion if you truly want to solve this problem. Exclusion and exclusivity will only lead to our downfall.

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