There is a strong push in many American communities to either strengthen or institute physical education programs in public schools. Will all these efforts make any difference to the childhood obesity epidemic? There are both positive and negative indications. In Dr. Pretlow’s view, an ineffective program is worse than none at all, because the ineffective program fools people into thinking they are accomplishing something when that is far from being the case.
In fact, there is often a negative consequence, because the false sense of security diverts attention from the biggest factor in childhood obesity. Hyperpalatable foods are designed to encourage comfort eating, which can lead to an unhealthy dependency on these foods. This dependency is so similar to addiction that no difference can be found between them.
But that doesn’t mean a program can’t be helpful. As Dr. Pretlow says, each item of the physical education curriculum should be examined through the “psychological food dependence-addiction lens.” In other words, does the activity do something to prevent children from using comfort eating to deal with stress and emotional disturbance?
A program called Playworks sounds as if it might work, if anything can. Designed for elementary school recess periods, it is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Dr. Esther Entin is a big believer in recess, as an aid to physical fitness, a reducer of childhood obesity, and a means of helping kids concentrate on their academic subjects. She says:
As play and recess have declined over the past half-century, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased, suggesting a connection between play and children’s long-term mental health.
Anxiety, depression, feelings of powerlessness, suicidal ideation — these states of being are the very ones that lead to comfort eating, and from there to food addiction. So if a program can alleviate those conditions, there is strong reason to hope that it will help reduce childhood obesity. The Playworks recess program is said to be those things and more — to reduce aggression and promote conflict resolution, and to improve student behavior and indeed the whole general climate of a school.
Dr. Entin describes the team effort to evaluate the early results:
The researchers evaluated the program based on onsite observations and feedback from 1,982 fourth and fifth grade students, 247 teachers, and 25 principals, as well as the 14 Playworks coaches who participated in the study. The evaluation found some positive, and no negative, impacts of the Playworks program. Most teachers, students, and principals had favorable impressions. Teachers reported that the program addressed student needs and improved behaviors. Students reported enjoying the program and principals responded by inviting the program back.
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