Physical Education in NSW schools is set to be overhauled in an effort to curb childhood obesity. The program, which is currently being trialled in ten schools, has been endorsed by Health Minister Brad Hazzard. The idea is not new. The UK considered similar changes in its schools earlier this year.
The new program would require teachers to ensure that their students are active for at least 50 percent of all Physical Education classes. The change comes after an NSW Health report found that 30 percent of sports classes are not being devoted to physical activity. It also suggests more non-competitive sports such as jogging and yoga and encourages co-ed classes to be split into single gender groups to reduce self-consciousness. It is also planned that students’ fitness levels are included in report cards. The suggested changes can encourage and provide a greater opportunity to move more and are a step in the right direction with regards to fitness.
The program also involves scales being provided in classrooms for the purpose of weigh-ins. Unlike the other changes suggested, this is a major flaw in the new program.
Weight ≠ health
Weighing kids teaches kids to view their health as a weight. A number on the scale. However, just as a low cholesterol level does not signal someone is heart healthy, so too, being thin or light is not a gauge of whether someone is generally healthy.
Weighing is not intuitive
Weighing also encourages kids to compare themselves with their peers, in terms of their weight or size. However, kids intuitively know to focus on healthy eating, movement, and adequate sleep to improve their health. Weighing is not an innate or intuitive way of improving health. This is an idea that comes from adults who are misled by dieting messages and the need to regularly weigh themselves.
There is a lack of awareness of the shaming from weighing, especially communal weigh-ins. For decades, weigh-ins at weight loss centres such as Weight Watchers have fuelled body dissatisfaction and a poor relationship with food. Weigh-ins in private, when necessary and by a non-judgemental health worker is already uncomfortable. The unease in a public setting, with other students looking at the scale when someone is weighing themselves and students making derogatory comments about other students’ weight, would be ‘off the scale’.
Weighing can lead to weight bias and detrimental judgment. It can expose students to detrimental judgment – of themselves and others. We live in such a weight-focused society that if our weight comes down we are seen as ‘good’, ‘right’, or ‘healthy’. If our weight goes up we are seen as ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, ‘unhealthy’. Heavier kids may end up body loathing, questioning if they are too heavy/big/fat, or having thoughts of dieting in an effort to be in line with their thinner schoolmates. Lighter kids may start to develop prejudice for fat kids and bully heavier kids.
Weighing is not always appropriate
As health professionals, we need to assess and carefully consider on a case-by-case situation whether weighing adults (and especially children and teenagers), will provide any benefit, no benefit or whether it may actually be detrimental to their health to encourage weighing.
First, do no harm
The focus of the new program is for secondary students, as activity levels drop from the age of 13 to 18. This is also a very active time of growth. Weighing, especially in this age group, exacerbates a poor body dissatisfaction and feelings of confusion, anxiety, and depression. Mixed with peer pressure, the effect on teens is likely to be amplified. Dieting is already rife due to society’s strong pressure to be thin. Weighing can compound disordered eating and trigger eating disorders.
Scope of practice
Not only would weighing students be another burden placed on teachers, it is also outside their scope of practice. Teachers are not equipped to respond to questions such as “Miss, am I too fat?”, “Miss, how much should I weigh? Or worse still, students going home with misconceptions or concerns and no support. Doctors and dietitians are trained to respond to concerns about a child’s weight, based on their medical history, growth pattern, eating habits, eating behaviours and activity levels.
The focus on being more active and improved fitness can make long-term differences to our students’ health. However, weigh-ins in the classrooms can open up a can of worms. It may even create problems which never existed.