Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Recreation to join 3Rs of learning in effort to make children more fit

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.05.04
EDITION: Final
SECTION: City
PAGE: C1 / Front
BYLINE: Hayley Mick and Jamie Sutherland
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen

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Recreation to join 3Rs of learning in effort to make children more fit: Pilot project adds activity to classwork

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It's not quite dodge ball among the desks, but a new project taking aim at childhood obesity is bringing physical exercise into the space where children are most often found: the classroom.

The four-month pilot project, which will incorporate 30 minutes of daily physical activity

into regular lessons, will begin next fall and involve one French- and one English-speaking Grade 3 class from Ottawa. A lesson might look something like this: Students asked to add two plus two would answer by squatting four times. A class might go on a science expedition by walking around the school to identify different tree species.

"What we're trying to do is put movement to whatever they're doing in the classroom," says

Dr. Claire LeBlanc, a pediatric rheumatologist at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, who helped design the study.

The project is the latest initiative to address soaring levels of childhood obesity in Canada. Solving the problem will be the focus of a two-day conference and trade show starting in Ottawa tomorrow. Health and education specialists will gather at Algonquin College to discuss how policy-makers, health care workers, educators, parents and others can work to reduce obesity and poor fitness in children.

"The pediatric obesity epidemic we are facing is multidisciplinary -- this conference will focus on comprehensive strategies to tackle the issue," said Dr. Andrew Pipe, of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, who will speak at the conference. "We need to raise awareness and make people understand the nature and depth of the problem."

In Canada, the number of obese children has nearly tripled in the last 20 years. Experts say the root of the problem is not just the fatty, sugary foods children eat, but also sedentary lifestyles. Children avoid the raucous playground, preferring to play video games or watch television. At school, budget cuts and time constraints mean less time for formal physical education programs.

Federal and provincial governments have tried a number of initiatives to tackle the problem. About $300 million in the 2005 federal budget has been allocated to promote healthy living and decrease chronic disease. Several provinces, including Ontario, have introduced school programs to educate children about healthy foods. Other programs put nutritious choices in school cafeterias and vending machines.

This latest learn-while-you-exercise project is funded by a $50,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. If it produces positive results, the project may be implemented at schools across Canada. To design it, Dr. Leblanc teamed up with childhood obesity expert Mark Tremblay, dean of kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan and a scientific adviser to Statistics Canada.

Dr. Leblanc says traditional physical education classes still have a valuable role to play, but often curriculum constraints mean teachers don't have time to include them. This pilot project would have teachers incorporate 30 minutes of exercise -- the minimum daily requirement for children, according to Health Canada -- into regular class time by spreading physical activities throughout the day.

The project will hopefully have not only health benefits, but foster learning as well, says Dr. Leblanc.

That is exactly why the Ottawa Carleton Catholic School Board, from which one participating school will be chosen, is interested in the project, says Daniel Morris, a research officer with the board. "Certainly we anticipate positive results, but until it's done, we don't know."

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