The Decline of Physical Health in Australia: Can our Schools Make a Difference?

Australia is among the most obese countries in the world tying with America in 2003. Eighteen years later the nation’s physical health has deteriorated beyond epidemic proportions.
by Casey Abel with Kai Wong
Kai Wong is a thirteen year old calisthenics enthusiast. Photo Credits: Casey Abel

In the twenty years between 1983 and 2003 the number of obese Australians doubled, placing Australia alongside America as among the most overweight countries in the world. In the eighteen years since, Australia’s health has continued to decline, with childhood obesity now an urgent conundrum for the nation.  

The most recent National Health Survey has revealed approximately 25% of Australian youth aged 2-17 years are overweight or obese. These figures are 17% and 8.2% respectively. These statistics are particularly alarming as obesity is a trend that typically carries over from childhood into adulthood.

These figures are particularly prominent in the adolescent and young adult bracket where a combined 41% of 15-24 year olds are either overweight or obese. There is a clear progression that as Australians age we gain weight as 67% of Australian adults are overweight, and a staggering 31% of those adults are obese.

Several key reasons have been cited for Australia’s obesity epidemic including a lack of health and physical education in the early years, combined with Australia’s poor dietary and exercise culture. Today most families have both primary caregivers working simultaneously, leading to a work life balance where families eat out regularly, and cook less at home.

Traditionally, cooking was a time of family bonding in the kitchen, an opportunity for family elders to pass on cooking skills and healthy eating habits to their youngsters. The decline of this habit, among other factors, has taken a toll on the nation as general poor health literacy is also cited as a concerning factor.

The education level of parents and caregivers affects their health literacy—that is, their ability to access, understand and use health information in ways that benefit their health. This in turn, affects other members of the household such as children. Health literacy is higher in those with higher education, and people with low health literacy are at higher risk of worse health outcomes and poorer health behaviours.

AIHW

Clearly there is a positive role for schools to play in tackling the nation’s obesity crisis. The World Health Organisation asserts that young people should engage in 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day. According to the National Health Survey, as little as 1.9% of Australian youth aged 15-17 are meeting this requirement.

A small movement in America is calling for a re-evaluation of the role of Health and Physical Education in the curriculum. The 2017 documentary ‘The Motivation Factor’ interviewed several schools adopting HPE classes reminiscent of the internationally renown program pioneered at La Sierra High during the 1960’s.

La Sierra High was a Californian secondary school which adopted a school-wide approach to physical fitness, partly inspired by pedagogies from Ancient Greece. Their program engaged all students in 60 minutes of vigorous physical exercise every day. The programs designer, Stan Leprotti, was focused on student health and fitness; not on sports, as tends to be the case in Australia.

Leprotti fostered a positive culture of towards health and fitness through a unique colour-ranking system. All students wore bright coloured sports pants. Each colour signified a student’s reaching a criteria of athletic ability. Each criteria constituted a combination of minimum standards for various exercises, such as distance run and number of continuous pullups.

La Sierra students achieved incredible bodily aesthetic, strong social cohesion, consistent high grades and positive self-efficacy. The presented images of La Sierra students stand in stark contrast of the typical American and Australian youth today.  What is significant about La Sierra’s program is that it was focused solely on encouraging student health and social cohesion; it did not contribute to students’ grades.

To implement such a program in an Australian school would require a huge leap of faith on the part of School faculty. Particularly as the Australian education system wrestles with a neo-liberal obsession with standardised testing and results.

It is a common view amongst Australians students that Health and Physical Education is a bludge subject in the senior years of high school. Despite having been an OP subject in Qld, and now an ATAR subject nation-wide, many misperceive the academic value of the course. Given the nation’s flailing health literacy HPE is more important than ever. Perhaps though a more physical program akin to La Sierra’s would be beneficial.

Australian Universities are drilling into graduates the necessity of reconnecting parents and families to the school context. A school-wide approach to encouraging student health and fitness in Australia could be a beneficial way of strengthening community ties.

The students at La Sierra were quite the spectacle, with parents and families regularly attending the school to observe their children working out during the day. Each year the school hosted an annual live performance where student’s could demonstrate their physical achievements in front of the community.

Australian schools have relative autonomy for the programs they host, however in the current climate implementing such a program would be an audacious undertaking. Until the education system prioritises student needs and well-being over standardised test scores, few similar programs are likely to be green lit.

 Interview with Kai Wong

In writing this article I decided to interview a local schoolboy and calisthenics enthusiast, Kai Wong. Kai is thirteen years old and trains regularly at our local community calisthenics park. He is a shining example of a healthy adolescent, and embodies statistically atypical attitudes towards health and fitness comparative to his same-age peers. I sat down with him to get a young person’s perspective on the matter.

As a young athlete, what are your thoughts on the state of physical health in Australia?

I think society tells people of the greatness of education, and education only. Education is important but so is physical exercise. At school we do HPE twice a week, alternating between practical and theory lessons. I would like it more if we spent more time on the physical part of PE, as it would help the cohort be healthier. Also, my lessons are purely based off sports, but I would enjoy it more if it had more of a fitness focus, purely teaching exercises. I mean we have a school gym that we’re not even allowed to use.

For a young person today, you’re atypically driven in the pursuit of fitness and health. What motivates you?

I started my journey in early 2020. I looked quite skinny but not too bad. I have always enjoyed fitness overall, but calisthenics has attracted me the most. It’s all bodyweight training, and progressing leads to some pretty gravity defying skills. I was instantly attracted to it. After training daily for a month, I saw minor results. I have an idea of the physique I want and so I’m working towards it.

You are an 8th grader yourself. What is your opinion of HPE in Queensland?

The intensity of our exercises are quite simple, and over the course of a week we would be lucky to do an hour of physical activities. I would like to have daily physical education. If we did, I would probably be happy to go to school for once.

How do you think HPE could be done differently to better meet the physical needs of students?

School should be focusing less on sports and more on integrating calisthenics. Calisthenic techniques are simple and can be done wherever, whenever.

Having watched the documentary The Motivation Factor, what are your thoughts on the program made at La Sierra?

I would love to go to a school like La Sierra! I love the idea of being fitness focused, and I’m pretty competitive so the colour-ranking system seems awesome.

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