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If it’s said enough times does it make it true?: The need for critical pedagogy and personal inquiry around the obesity epidemic.

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored Fernández-Balboa’s (2003) paper about physical education in the digital age. He suggested that as a profession physical education needs to stop turning a deaf ear to the experiences of the disenfranchised students in our lessons, stop accepting the incidences where ‘isms’ are allowed into our lessons and our schools and find a way of educating every child rather than schooling them. This would call for a radical reform in the practices that pervade our schools; a point that was taken up in the discussion on the blog. Many felt that we give too much responsibility to ‘the next generation’ of teachers to be ‘the change’ rather than working from all angles. Roll out the ball (ROB) specialists - or maybe ROBers for short as they deprive so many kids of meaningful experiences - cannot be challenged by the next generation but need to be faced full on by those around them who know of their practices and yet condone them through their inaction.

In this week’s blog we explore Gard and Wright’s 2001 paper which seeks (or sought) to challenge the wholesale acceptance of “obesity” as an epidemic. They are concerned with what they see as physical education’s uncritical acceptance of ‘expert’ testimony as to the existence of obesity - testimony they believe to be based on scientific evidence that was both “unstable and contestable”. Their biggest concern was the potentially unethical and frequently uncontested acceptance that obesity was a matter of health. As such a “healthism” approach in physical education could addressed this issue by ‘righting’ the energy in/energy out equation through vigorous exercise. In this way physical education (in a wider battle for legitimacy) is able to position itself as one of the best places through which to address these concerns.

Paper 8:

Gard, M. & Wright, J. (2001/2012). Managing uncertainty: obesity discourses and physical education in a risk society. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 116-132) London: Routledge.

My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

The core argument in this paper to me was that we have been uncritical of the debate around obesity and too accepting of the notion that by increasing energy expended beyond that consumed we are encouraging “healthy living”. As an academic I was also made aware of both the tag of “expert” that is often afforded to someone in my position and the job that I do (as I am now) in filtering the information and research that I read to suit the argument that I am trying to read. What Gard and Wright do particularly well is challenged this notion of expertise and warn against “headlines”. In a recent lecture I explored the differences between news headlines and published reports and ask my audience to be sceptical of what they read and to take opportunities to consider themselves the story behind the news. In many ways we are too accepting of what we are told and too quick to jump on the bandwagon of popular opinion. I feel that this blog points squarely at the idea that we’ve got to get our own thinking straight before we can act around sensitive issues and that needs - somehow - to be supported by our own learning and critical discussions. In this case words and ideas (in the first instance) speak louder than actions.

In taking on messages from the press and popular opinion - in other words in listening to what the fabled “they” have to say and taking this as fact - we are left with little more than a headline knowledge of key issues that affect us. Gard and Wright were reporting at the turn of the century and yet they were also voicing their concerns at a time when the obesity crisis and the battle of the bulge were first being talked about. Drawing on key research at the time they showed how key messages of confusion and doubt - indeed of mixed and conflicting findings - were buried behind the headlines. Furthermore, they showed that when one person cites the work of another and holds them up as “expert” that often do this to make a point. In this way the highlights often emerged, as did points of emphasis that supports the cite(ers) point. Yet at that juncture the limitations and concerns are often edited out. It is easy to see this happening and yet in acknowledging this I must also take the words of Gard and Wright with a large pinch of salt. It seems likely that in their own citations, and in an effort to make their own point more forcefully, I am positioned to see them as “experts” in their own right.

What I am left with is an inquisitive, yet sceptical opinion on obesity and the place of physical education in solving this so called “epidemic”. I am convinced by the authors to widen my reading and take this (and other messages) with a pinch of salt. The BBC recently based a lambasting of physical educationist in the UK for their apparently sedentary practices on a report that, in my opinion, they selectively and cynically cited. These ideas seem to be based on a belief that through moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) kids would simply be “fitter and healthier. On this occasion, instead of accepting this interpretation I took the time, before passing comment, to read the report for myself. However, I am not always that thorough. So I guess my questions are: Do we take too much as “fact”? Are we too willing to accept the word of the “expert”? and have we simply accepted the idea that Physical education is best placed to address issues of obesity? Finally have we failed to consider what is being done in physical education lessons by the ROBers in our midst?

The Paper

In their opening gambit Gard and Wright suggest that physical education is always associated with improvements in health. Under various ‘incarnations’ and through different “waves” (to borrow a term from the last blog) physical education has been increasinging concerned with fitness. This might be in preparing the armies of the empire on the fields of Eton or measuring weight, body size, shape and fitness under the guise of Health Related Fitness (HRF). Throughout this process, Gard and Wright argue, little regard has been given to the ‘messages’ that this type of monitoring suggests about bodies, weight and normality. Physical education - while compliant in delivering these messages - is not to blame for the irrefutable link that has been made between inactivity and health; nor in the development of “lifestyle diseases” which are ‘triggered’ by being overweight or obese. Gard and Wright do hold, however, that Physical Education has been an uncritical supporter of the equation exercise=fitness=health and has voiced concerns that “overweight and obesity are key risk indicators of preventable morbidity and mortality”.

While Gard and Wright do not hold Physical Education responsible for the production of the obesity discourse they do suggest that, in seeking legitimation as a school subject, it has ‘profited’ (my word) from making unethical links between PE and Obesity. In our efforts to avoid risks or ‘bads’ (things that aren’t good for us) we have come to rely on experts who (a) are a crucial focus of our trust and (b) claim knowledge, expertise and an ability to control that which is out of control. Yet Gard and Wright suggest that, in the case of the obesity crisis, those involved in investigating the field may have claimed “a level of expertise to which they might not be entitled”. They suggest that the “lack of certainty [that exists] about risks and populations seems to have been overlooked”. This in turn has had negative effects on the teaching of the subject. The cause of this ‘confusion’ has been the way in which biomedical research has been “appropriated” by physical education. Gard and Wright argue that in drawing on this research physical education has refocused and relocated it to such a degree that it loses its original complexity until exercise=fitness=health.

Instead of adhering to such a simple equation Gard and Wright argued that remarkable little is known about the causes of obesity and that increase in weight was neither universal nor uniform. Furthermore,obesity goes beyond energy intake and physical activity to include social forces that included race, gender and class. Most particularly, however, the authors were concerned that in building an argument and position for physical education on “shaky assumptions” had witness the development of a “healthism” and a “cult of slenderness” that allows for measurement and comparison, which positions the overweight as lazy and morally wanting and classifies people as normal or abnormal, good or bad, at risk or requiring attention. Furthermore it opens up children and adults to ridicule, harassment and public monitoring. Finally, they suggest that we have constructed certainty around weight, exercise and health where none exists, while failing to present physical activity to young people in a  way that they find enjoyable and therefore want to take part. Their take home message, and mine, is “what does it say about me if weight control is as simple as energy in/energy out and yet I continue to struggle with my weight?”

What’s next?
As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the comment box below to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?

on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be. Based on this blog I feel that a greater emphasis on personal reflection may be needed. Furthermore I would welcome a discussion on what critical screening skills teachers need, and maybe this will create an opportunity to share holistic ways to address current issues in class.

what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

comment avatar
About me
On Thursday 21 February at 20:47 Jo Bailey said
The article certainly has many valid points - the media often use physical activity and physical education as a major part of the solution to the obesity epidemic and I also think we are . However, we still do not have a holistic approach to teaching health, nutrition, and physical education. Many students simply do not understand the concepts of energy balance because either they receive little or no nutrition education OR nutrition education is a separate entity to physical education. In the state where I teach there are state standards for nutrition education but they are not mandated and it is not directed where they should be taught. Therefore for the most part they are not taught at all. The push to focus on core subjects such as Maths, English and Science has all but eradicated mandatory classes such as Family and Consumer Education/ Home Economics where you would have learned to cook, balance meals etc. Many students have no idea how to prepare a meal for either themselves or others. It is the choice of the student to take these classes as electives yet they are skills everyone needs. This further perpetuates the obesity problem as fast food, easy prep options become the norm, and as we know these options are often highly calorific. Nutrition education, energy balance and physical education should go hand in hand - I have spent the last few years creating entire units addressing these issues and have done several presentations detailing how I link nutrition in PE, while keeping my students active. Once our students begin to understand that nutrition and physical activity are not stand-alone concepts we stand more of a chance of having this knowledge transfer into their lives- we still however, need teach skills like meal planning & preparation, portioning, budgeting for food & dealing with stress in positive ways, making sure our students understand how easy it is to out-eat any exercise you perform. Love the term ROBers - very apt! Jo Bailey
Justen O'Connor
About me
On Tuesday 15 December at 05:22 Justen O'Connor said

I think what Gard and Wright are saying is that obesity discourses reconstruct obesity in highly simplistic ways and ignore the highly contested reality of the reasearch. We take consensus statements on nutrition and overly simplistic energy in and energy out equations and then dumb these down to basic messages for kids and then expect them to make good decisions to avoid obesity. If you look at nutritional research right now - you have Tim Noakes and his group arguing that high fat, low carbs are the way to go. You have high sugar movies that then spawn high fructose (hidden sugar) alternatives. There are the Paleos, Nude food, whole food, sports drinks, coca-cola reps on the nutrition boards and the healthy food plate people calling out consensus. Each of these can point to scientific research to advocate they are right. How are teachers much less students supposed to make sense of this 'evidence'. Answer - teachers don't, they point simplistically to a diagram as education and expect individuals to make good decisions, largely ignoring the fact that the the kids aren't the ones who do the shopping, determine their income, choose where they live, choose their cultural context or the way their family engage in meal time. 

Many students simply do not understand the concepts of energy balance - Many scientists don't understand the concepts behind energy balance and obesity. Leptin, Ghrelin, insulin, glucogon are messy things with weird interrelated effects. Set point theories, insulin insensitivity, leptin insensitivity, diabetes... WOW! You would think (based on physics) that eat less do more would simply work and be relatively easy to achieve, but not all mediators are created equally. Add to this food policies (what did low fat policies based on dodgy science do to sugar consumption?), advertising, social norms, social conditioning, cultural values, accessability, sedentary enertainment, peer pressure, etc. etc. and all of a sudden our simple energy balance equation is getting a hell of a lot more confusing. 

So Gard and Wright are saying we need to avoid the overly simplistic messages that being overweight is a matter of individuals making simple and good decisions to eat the right foods and exercise more. We need to stop trying to do the work of health professionals and intervene in an area we are ill-equiped to intervene on. I know obesity experts who are perplexed and say gastric banding is the only current viable solution for any young child who is already obese.

Instead, we need to educate (teach and learn) about health and its complexities rather than try to promote health. We need to challenge basic assumptions (1 in 4 kids are obese - not in my kids school), critically explore the variety of information and develop the health literacy of our students to interpret this messy complex world of contested information where certainty is far from reality.

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