A study says primary school teachers may have an influence on how healthy their pupils are. (David Harrison, MG)

Teachers may be losing the battle of the bulge

Pontsho Pilane
A new study argues a teacher's health habits could influence pupils'choices.

Almost 80% of Western Cape primary school teachers could be overweight or obese, according to results from a study published recently in the BioMedCentral Public Health journal. Researchers argue that this could be trouble for pupils.

The study measured weight as well as blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol levels among 517 educators in 83 schools. University of Cape Town (UCT) researchers found that almost 80% of all teachers were overweight or obese. A third of the teachers had high blood pressure and about 12% had diabetes or high cholesterol.

The research defined overweight as a weight-to-height ratio, known as body mass index, greater than or equal to 25, but lower than 30, whereas the ratio for obesity is considered higher than 30.

Overweight and obesity rates among teachers in the study were almost twice as high as those found among adults in the 2012 South African Nutrition and Health Survey.

Western Cape teachers who were female, older or lived in urban areas were more likely to be overweight and obese, according to the UCT study.

Several studies have found that overweight people are more likely to get cancer, diabetes or suffer from heart disease. According to 2014 research commissioned by the treasury, overweight and obesity are a huge burden on South Africa's healthcare and the economy, in terms of sickness, underproductivity and higher operating costs, says the study.

Mugwena Maluleke, secretary general of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu), has blamed teachers' poor health on a shift away from physical education in schools and an increase in administrative work.

"We should be concerned [about the health of educators] because they are the nation builders and they impart knowledge and skills to the future of our country," he explains.

South Africa's 2012 nutritional survey found that almost 20% of children aged two to nine were also overweight and obese. UCT researchers argue that improving the health of teachers may improve the health of pupils.

UCT researchers suggest wellness campaigns and healthier food options at schools to help teachers get fit. Sadtu is trying to encourage teachers to get active with dedicated sports days and proposed wellness campaigns run with the Government Employees Medical Scheme and the sports department, Maluleke says.

This could be good news for pupils.

In the study, researchers say: "There is no doubt that educators play an important role in health promotion. Improving the health of educators also improves their effectiveness as role models. Students are more likely to eat healthier foods if their educators are of normal weight and are regularly seen to eat healthy foods."

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