Aboriginal children are not just overweight they are becoming obese. That's a trend Chief Harold Sappier Memorial Elementary School in New Brunswick wants to end.
This fall the St. Mary's First Nation school discouraged students from bringing pop and chips in their lunches, effectively eliminating junk food from the school. The school then introduced a new physical education program called BOOST to help combat the serious health problems, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, that can come from obesity.
BOOST-Building Opportunities, Opening Students' Tomorrows-is more than a phys-ed class. BOOST encourages children to love being active.
According to preliminary results from a health survey announced in September, obesity in First Nations is double the Canadian average. Diabetes in First Nation people is five times more common among adults 35 years and older than it is for the rest of Canadians in the same age group.
Type 2 diabetes, also known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes because it does not require insulin injections and it can be controlled through diet, is typically a disease among the elderly. However, as the child obesity rate rises, so does the Type 2 diabetes rate among Aboriginal children.
"Children who are overweight have a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and typically children are overweight because of inactivity and unhealthy diet. So the risk is real and it's growing," said Dr. Gabriela Tymowski, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick.
Shelly Landsburg, the community health nurse at St. Mary's First Nation, was concerned about the rising rates of Type 2 diabetes among Aboriginal youth. She consulted with Chief Harold Sappier principal, Walter Paul, and together they began a health program. Landsburg started by measuring the students' height and weight, cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
"We found that some of our students are overweight and [there was a] question mark about some of the blood readings," reported Paul. Landsburg and Paul knew they had to get the kids moving.
New Brunswick does not have a structured physical education program, so Landsberg approached Tymowski to see how the university could help with the physical activity component of the school's health plan.
That's how Elsie Wetmore got involved. Wetmore decided to apply for her master's degree at the university just as Tymowski was looking for someone to run the physical activity part of the program. As part of her graduate work, Wetmore wants to find out how people develop their attitudes towards health.
After many years of teaching in Quebec, Wetmore was shocked by the prevalence of obesity in Atlantic Canada.
"I just thought, man that just doesn't add up. I mean we've got beautiful countryside, and we can get out, you know. Why is this happening?"
Wetmore's role is to put the students through their paces. They participate in 30 minutes of physical activity per day except for Wednesdays, where the shortened day limits activity to a 15-minute health hustle before loading the bus. Activities include outdoor walks, dancing, parachute games and body pyramids, to name a few.
Wetmore wants to emphasize that physical activity is not about losing weight; it's about feeling good.
"We're not talking weight. We're talking, 'What about getting more active? What kind of feeling do you have when you reach down and your heart's pumping?'"
So far, the students' response to the program has been very positive.
"The first month there was a lot of lying flat. We would do a few minutes of movement and, 'Uhh, I'm tired!'" said Wetmore, mimicking the students. "But this month in October, we've been keeping up pretty nicely."
Students are also encouraged to keep a journal of their activities and their feelings about physical activity.
"Elsie is really dynamic and enthusiastic and she shows that she loves physical activity too, which I thi is really important," said Tymowski. "She's not just standing at the front and saying 'Do this.' She's saying 'Let's do this together,' and I think that's the key. "
Students are encouraged to eat more vegetables and fruit, and to drink water and milk. Parents are encouraged to pack healthier lunches. If a student brings unhealthy food in their lunch, the school sends a friendly reminder note to the parents. So far, the parents are complying.
And all this activity has had a trickle-down effect in the community. Mothers of the students have begun a Monday night volleyball game.
"We first started at eight [people], then we were 10, now we are 12," said Wetmore. Principal Paul is happy with the positive reaction by the parents. In the past, parental involvement has not always been easy. "Even if it was a First Nation school or a public school, any contact with parents was always negative. That's how it's perceived. So we're trying to say 'Come and see the positive parts. We've got good things going,'" said Paul.
Next month Landsburg plans to visit the school with the Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative to teach about nutrition, using some simple science experiments to see, for example, how much sugar is in pop and what sugar does to the body.