PRESCRIPTIONS FOR HEALTH CARE

The battle against obesity begins at school

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Glen Hodgson, senior vice-president and chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada

How to make Canadian health care sustainable? Five speakers from this week’s Conference Board of Canada summit offer one remedy each for The Globe and Mail. Part 1: Diet and lifestyle

It seems remarkable to imagine, but due to childhood obesity and increased likelihood of chronic diseases later in life, today’s youth may be the first generation of Canadians to have a shorter average lifespan than their parents.

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If we can do one thing to improve the health of Canadians, it’s to go to battle against the obesity epidemic rising across Canada, starting with children – and the school system is an ideal place to start.

The battle against obesity should start with introducing an hour of physical activity every day, for every child, in every school and preschool across Canada. As part of the core educational curriculum, children should be instructed on what a healthy diet and lifestyle is and why it’s important. Food available at schools and at all recreational facilities would need to meet a high nutritional standard. And parents need to be involved at each stage of the learning process.

Why is this important? Because obesity is a silent epidemic sweeping across North America, and our kids are not being spared. Childhood obesity increases the risk of our children suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Type 2 diabetes, rarely found among children a decade ago, is now being diagnosed more frequently. Obesity increases the risk of other illnesses later in life, including heart attacks, stroke and cancer.

Rising obesity also carries a significant economic burden, very conservatively estimated at $4.6-billion in 2008 by the Canadian Institute for Health Information – and this number will only rise.

There have been scattered initiatives at federal, provincial and municipal levels to tackle obesity, including children’s fitness tax credits and advertising bans. But these approaches have had only limited success. Other countries – including the United States – are being roused into action. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign is mobilizing thousands of U.S. schools and hundreds of towns to “solve the obesity challenge within one generation.”

The smartest way to attack the rise of obesity in Canada is to prevent it – and that means a strategy that focuses on combatting and preventing obesity early in childhood and throughout life.

A school curriculum that rebalances intellectual development with physical health has to be the centrepiece of any strategy. An hour of physical activity daily in schools is not too much to demand. Similarly, a stronger school curriculum on healthy diet and the benefits of an active lifestyle would go a long way toward combatting the rise of childhood obesity.

The elimination of high-calorie, low-quality foods from schools and recreation facilities would be controversial, but it also presents opportunities, especially if children and their parents are more aware of the importance of healthy diets. Restaurants and food service operators that appeal to children could redouble their efforts to adopt more balanced meals and higher nutritional standards.

If we want our kids to prosper physically as well as intellectually, we owe it to them to use every weapon at our disposal in the battle against obesity. That includes the school system.

Glen Hodgson is senior vice-president and chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada.

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