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Fat and dumb State?

By David Gillespie - posted Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Astute readers of these pages may have noticed a conspiracy afoot in recent times. The children of Queensland have been scheming to embarrass the Education Department. Without fear or favour the juvenile delinquents have relentlessly failed to be educated. The result is that Queensland has demonstrated a resounding lack of achievement in national educational benchmarks.

Not one to be cornered by mewling infants, Premier Bligh tore a page from Populist Leadership for Dummies and immediately appointed a new “Czar of making it look like something is being done” (at least until the next election). But the new “Fixer”, Melbourne-based Professor Geoff Masters, may find he has bitten off more than he can chew when he discovers the latest innovation in Queensland education.

From the start of this term it is compulsory for all Queensland primary school students to attend to schooling for half an hour less per day. We’ve suffered through some pretty bizarre educational theories in Queensland in the last 30 years or so, but not even the most wacky has proposed that exposing children to less education will make them smarter.


Recent research out of Johns Hopkins University suggests that exactly the opposite is true especially for the most disadvantaged in our classrooms. The more exposure a child gets to formal education the more likely they are to achieve better results in standardised tests. This is true of any child but the impact is more profound in the children of low and middle-income earners.

However, our fearless leaders are not about to have their policies derailed by mere research based on long term, large cohort studies. As part of its Smart Moves policy, the Queensland Government will require that all primary school children participate in 30 minutes of compulsory “moderate intensity” physical activity from the start of this term. This time is to be taken out of class time, thereby reducing actual teaching time by about 10 per cent.

Prompted by exploding childhood obesity numbers, the thinking behind the policy is obviously that if our kids can’t be smart at least they’ll be thin. Everyone knows that looking good is more important than acing tests, particularly in the Sunshine State. Clearly we’ll need to throw out our Smart State number plates.

If only being thin were simply a matter of running around the playground for an extra half an hour a day. Unfortunately, the research once again fails to support the policy makers. Presumably one of the sources for the idea is the joint guideline on physical activity published by the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine in August 2007. After reviewing the available evidence, they recommended that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week is necessary to "promote and maintain health".

Noticeably absent from the guideline is any suggestion that exercise would definitely lead to any weight reduction. The best they could come up with was:

It is reasonable to assume that persons with relatively high daily energy expenditures would be less likely to gain weight over time, compared with those who have low energy expenditures. So far, data to support this hypothesis are not particularly compelling …

The problem with exercise is that it just doesn’t burn that many calories. And any calories that it does chew through are very easily replaced with microscopic changes in diet. As Louis Newburgh, famous student of energy and metabolism at the University of Michigan, once famously calculated, a 110kg man will burn just three Calories walking up a flight of stairs. “He will have to climb twenty flights of stairs to rid himself of the energy contained in one slice of bread!”, said Newburgh.

A quick bit of maths on a calorie counter tells us that the average child will burn about 75 more Calories in 30 minutes of moderate exercise than they would have if they had been sitting in a classroom. That’s about the same number of Calories as the small fruit juice popper which their parents will inevitably feel they require after bouncing around in the sun for half an hour.

None of this is to suggest that there are not good health reasons for exercise, merely that weight loss shouldn’t be the primary motivating factor. But the reality is that, as Newburgh and a slew of those that followed found, exercise actually makes us hungrier and prone to eating more. This is perhaps why the American Heart Association was less than fulsome in its support of the concept.

It’s time the Premier spent less time pounding the pavement in search of a win in the Bridge to Brisbane and more time hitting the books. Our children do not need less time in the classroom. And they certainly don’t need to be missing school to satisfy a mythology about obesity (and how to cure it) which has no foundation in reality. If we don’t want to be printing “Fat and Dumb State” on our number plates, then it’s time to start looking at what the science really says rather than creating yet another feel-good review to get us past today’s ugly headlines.

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About the Author

David Gillespie is a lawyer and the author of Sweet Poision: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat (Penguin, 2008).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by David Gillespie

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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