Education Ministry Israel Lagging in Physical Education Hours, Student Obesity Prevention

Health Ministry data states 44 percent of the public between the ages of 18 and 64 are either overweight or obese.

Dan Even
Dan Even
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Dan Even
Dan Even

The state comptroller reviewed actions taken against obesity in Israel since the publication of his findings on the matter in his May 2008 report, and found neither legislation nor funding devoted to the issue over these three years.

Although the comptroller warned in the 2008 report that "preventing obesity requires systematic treatment and cooperation between ministries and many other organizations concerned with the matter," an interministerial plan for treating obesity was presented to cabinet only in November 2010, after the cabinet saw a draft copy of the current report. The plan is yet to be approved or allocated funds by the cabinet.

Elementary school students participating in gym class in Tel Aviv yesterday.Credit: Alon Ron

Health Ministry data states 44.1 percent of the public between the ages of 18 and 64, and 69.2 percent of those 65 and older, are either overweight or obese. The Association for Public Health Services notes that in 2007-2009, 22.5 percent of students in the first to ninth grade were overweight, while 8 percent were obese. Israelis today consume more high-calorie food, sugar, saturated fat and salt. Energy consumed daily per person has risen by 1,000 calories since 1948. The ministry estimates the direct and indirect damage caused by obesity at about NIS 10 billion a year.

The review found that the little action taken to combat obesity is uncoordinated and insufficient. The report's findings show that the health and education ministries have not yet initiated legislation limiting the sale of calorie-rich food and beverages at educational institutions; the nutritional value of meals served to the students has not been checked, while some children studying under the New Horizon program as late as 2:30 P.M. or 3:30 P.M. are not getting a daily meal at the school, raising fears that their nutrition is not healthy or balanced.

The committee's recommendations on reducing salt quantities in food have not yet been submitted, and a program on the matter prepared by the Health Ministry has not been implemented or even approved. Programs for encouraging physical exercise are local and are not coordinated by a single body.

Israeli students rest at the bottom of the European charts on the number of sports hours per weeks, with only 90 minutes per week allocated to physical exercise usually split into two classes. The situation is even worse in ultra-Orthodox schools, where a mere 40 weekly minutes are dedicated to sports.

A study carried out among high school students found they only spent 10 minutes out of every class actually physically exercising. Several ministry committees have recommended over the years to increase the sports classes quotas to three a week and to engage students in physical exercise during recess, but, the state comptroller report said, "no real steps were taken to increase the effective use of the currently available two weekly classes."

The report also found that the state fails to encourage the lowering of prices for healthy food, which is normally more effective. The army was credited for some achievement in combating obesity among its personnel, but the comptroller still notes that the IDF fails to monitor canteens and vending machines, some of them operated by private licensees and selling fattening food and drink. "Consumers buying at the canteen are often a captive audience, soldiers on military bases who have no alternatives for the temptations posed by canteen products," the report said.

The Health Ministry said in response that it welcomed the comptroller's remarks, but noted little improvement in public health in Israel: "The drop in the numbers of smokers has stalled, cancer incidences are on the rise, and there are testimonies of a rise in obesity," the ministry said, noting that an intervention plan will be presented to the cabinet in July.



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