Irreparable harm to children's bodies: expert

A ''depressing lack'' of health prevention strategies in New Zealand schools is causing irreparable damage to children's bodies, which will cost taxpayers millions of dollars in the years to come, a musculoskeletal specialist says.

However, the Otago Primary Principals' Association believes it is a wider issue for communities to help tackle, not just schools.

New Zealand Association of Musculoskeletal Medicine member and physician Dr Steve Bentley said he was seeing more children with postural problems, back pain, scoliosis, developmental problems and lower limb alignment problems.

Children were spending much less time on social interaction in sport and other physical activities, and more time at home watching television, engaged in non-educational, antisocial computer/phone activities, eating poorly, gaining weight and establishing poor lifestyle habits, he said.

''The issue is the level of inactivity of children, the growing problems of obesity and diabetes, which have a profound influence on future health into adulthood and will cost this country dearly as the medical budget blows out dealing with the consequences of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and its complications, as well as hip and knee joint degeneration and joint replacement ... Back pain is the most common cause of loss of time at work,'' he said.

''There is a depressing lack of health prevention strategies in this country.''

Schools had a role to play in providing balanced education, including physical education and activity as well as providing nutritional food, Dr Bentley said.

The reintroduction of milk in schools was a great start, he said.

''Schools can achieve a lot by introducing physical skills and interests, but also in specific prevention of disease, for example osteoporosis.

''A simple jump/skipping programme has a profound effect on bone mineral density during the period of maximum growth velocity in puberty.

''Girls in a jump/skip programme during their period of peak growth - 12 to 14 years - have been shown to increase their total bone mineral content 17% more than inactive girls at the end of their peak growth period, which has a huge impact on preventing osteoporosis later in life and postmenopausal fractures, especially hip fractures.

''Sadly, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education are failing our children in the area of preventive health strategies.''

There were still large numbers of children, especially from sporting families in the deep south, who were very physically active by participating in regular and competitive sport, Dr Bentley said.

''Those children's parents do a great job. We just need more children and families to be involved.''

Otago Primary Principals Association president and Bathgate Park School principal Whetu Cormick said teachers worked hard to provide a balanced learning programme that included health and physical education.

''Every day, in every New Zealand school, such programmes are evident.

''To say that schools are failing our young people is irresponsible.''

Obesity and other health-related problems were a wider issue that the whole community needed to address, Mr Cormick said.

''Schools alone cannot be held responsible for overcoming them.

''Fruit, breakfast and milk in schools are fantastic initiatives that will help our young people grow.''

A Ministry of Education spokeswoman said health and physical education classes embodied the New Zealand curriculum's vision for young people to develop the knowledge, values and competencies to live full and active lives.

''It is about them taking responsibility for improving their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their communities.

''Learning in health education, physical education and home economics helps students grow as confident, connected and involved lifelong learners, ready to contribute to their world.''

Pupils learnt that wellbeing was a combination of the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of people's lives, she said.

''They learn to think critically and make meaning of the world around them by exploring health-related and movement contexts.''

- john.lewis@odt.co.nz

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