A scientific study conducted jointly by a group of doctors from Madurai, Chennai and the United States with a sample size of 18,001 students from both government and private schools in Madurai has shown that the city’s children face the twin problems of under and over-nutrition in almost equal proportion.

The study assessed the anthropometry (measurements and proportions of body) of both boys and girls aged between 5 and 18 years from 10 government and 17 private schools, selected randomly, and concluded that overweight/obesity is turning out to be as big a threat as “thinness” was for years.

Both over and under weight, says Dr. V. Kumaravel, Director, Institute of Diabetes and Endocrinology, have serious consequences if they set in during childhood as there is a long period of exposure before the children reach adulthood. “They have to be addressed immediately," says the doctor, who led the study along with five others.

According to him, the findings of the study indicate that the ‘underfed’ population is slowly on the decline while the number of overweight people is on the rise. “The chances of an obese child turning into an obese adult are greater. And they might lose life expectancy by 5.8 years in case of males and 7.1 years in females,” he warns.

He dispels the notion entertained by most parents that an obese child is a healthy child. “Obesity can lead to health complications such as diabetes, stroke and cancer. Abdominal fat is also very dangerous. Nutrition is a major contributing factor and that is where it should be corrected,” he says.

Educating parents on the need to replace junk food with fruits and vegetables, discouraging the habit among children of getting hooked to television and video games, prohibiting school canteens from selling oily and packaged eatables and ensuring sufficient hours of play in the open are some of the solutions suggested by Dr.Kumaravel to control obesity. The study also highlighted the parents’ interest in seeing their children excel in academics than in sports. The schools tend to accommodate the demand of the parents, which undermines the health of the children. “Physical education classes remain only a part of the timetable with very little outdoor activity actually taking place during those classes,” Dr. Kumaravel observes.

Though it was originally planned to conduct the study in a much larger sample size and requisition letters were sent to about 50 city schools, many apparently turned down the anthropometry assessment. “It reflects the school’s reluctance to accept physical education on a par with academics,” he points out. The post of the District Inspector of Physical Education (DIPE) has been lying vacant for long, and the Physical Director of Samayanallur Government Higher Secondary School fills in on a temporary basis. This speaks of the indifferent attitude of the authorities to a vital health issue.

The office of the DIPE lacks basic facilities such as a landline telephone connection or a vehicle to go on inspections to over 500 schools in the district. Sources in the education department point out that of the 32 districts in the State, 24 lack permanent DIPEs and most of their offices are in a shambles. The DIPE in-charge declined to comment on the issue.

Even the post of Chief Inspector of Physical Education (CIPE) in Chennai is lying vacant. Though there are two posts of Chief Inspector, one each for male and female, they are under the dual charge of a single official. When contacted, the incumbent CIPE, M. Kalaiselvan, informed The Hindu that all vacancies would be filled soon. A Physical Education Trainer (PET) of a government higher secondary school here, who did not wish to be named, said that PETs were not given due importance by schools. “They are told to manage the sound systems during morning assemblies, arrange chairs and tables during school functions and run errands for the headmaster or headmistress,” he complained.

The State Government provides Rs.7 per student from classes VI to VIII, Rs.14 for classes IX and X and Rs. 21 each for class XI and XII students every year towards physical education expenses. Apart from this, it provides Rs. 40 a day for every child participating in zonal level sports tournaments and Rs. 50 for district and state-level tournaments.

PETs say the fund is inadequate to meet the nutrition needs of the children. Despite these odds, if some government school children do well in sports, it is due to the initiative of PETs who go in search of sponsors. This is an issue the Government needs to address on a priority basis, PETs say. The Physical Director of a Government School points out that many PETs are demotivated in their work because they have to wait for 27 years to get a promotion. “There is no point in the government providing additional marks for excellence in sports without addressing the problems plaguing physical education in schools,’” he notes.

Government school headmistresses approached by The Hindu for comment, refused to respond. A private school principal, who did not want to be identified, said while many schools do conduct physical education classes regularly, others did not because they either lacked proper play grounds or feared that the children could get hurt while playing and parents would be upset with the school.

S. Manoharan, father of a ninth standard student, agrees that lifestyle changes have led to schoolchildren not getting enough opportunity to play. “Children cannot excel mentally unless they are fit physically. It is high time we parents ensure that our children shed those extra calories by sweating it out in the open.”

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