Obesity is on the rise in Europe and with that worrying signs of poor health, stigmatisation and social exclusion, especially among the young. International research is now under way to help schools tackle this scourge through physical education classes that better communicate the benefits of being active to all students, regardless of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race and social class.
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Physical inactivity, sedentary lifestyles and overeating are a lethal combination. So much so that obesity is considered one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Half of all adults and nearly one in three children in Europe are overweight or obese. Excess weight causes physical problems, drastically increasing a person’s risk of developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes but also psychological challenges like depression, bullying and social exclusion.
The European Union is actively engaged in tackling obesity and physical inactivity to improve individual health but also to address societal challenges and mounting pressure on public health systems. The Commission’s Strategy for Europe on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues is a key initiative in support of that goal.
Better education is considered a vital tool to raise awareness of healthy and active lifestyles. But standards of ‘health and physical education’ (HPE) vary greatly from teacher to teacher, school to school and between different Member States.
“The way HPE is taught and conceptualised doesn’t always provide equitable health outcomes across gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and social class,” says Lena Larsson of the sports science department at Sweden’s Linnaeus University. “Our EDUHEALTH project is studying ways to improve individual and societal health by examining how school HPE can boost health outcomes for everyone in the EU and beyond.”
Nordic and Down Under experiences
EDUHEALTH, a Marie Curie research and innovation staff exchange, is building on existing working relationships to create long-lasting networks between Linnaeus University and two others in Norway and New Zealand. Project findings are expected to go a long way to boosting HPE teaching strategies, train-the-trainer programmes and professional development.
“We are also keen to leverage our methods to make a meaningful contribution to EU policies and actions aimed at promoting physical activity and health for all citizens,” says Larsson, who leads the project. More effective teaching practices also mean more inclusive and engaging lesson plans and activities to bring about and reinforce positive associations with physical activity among young people.
“It also helps to build their self-esteem and sense of belonging, which is especially important these days as we see more social marginalisation and cultural differences emerging in European school systems,” explains Larsson.
The project draws on New Zealand’s strong reputation in acknowledging and working closely with indigenous people (Maori) to develop healthy communities and societies through school and HPE. This experience, combined with the Nordic social education and welfare model and experience integrating new immigrants into society, makes a melting pot of best practices to build on and eventually share more widely.
Inclusive, fair and socially aware
Based on previous research by the team members and others, HPE has shown that it can and does contribute to physically active and healthy citizens who, in turn, contribute to the well-being of society as a whole.
But there are still gaps in the knowledge and that’s where EDUHEALTH comes in. The definition and understanding of what it means to be ‘physically active’ and ‘healthy’ is still being negotiated in different contexts, says Larsson.
“In some parts of the world, over the past two decades, this renegotiation has seen HPE curricula move from a predominance of scientific/physiological explanations of physical activity and health to more socially critical explanations.”
In New Zealand and Australia along with other countries such as Sweden such curricula expect teachers to integrate socially critical perspectives into their classes.
“So, that’s why we are working on the tools to integrate the ‘social’ aspect in HPE and help schools and teachers deliver inclusive, fair and socially-aware lessons, Larsson concludes.