Participation in school sport is important to us all, Professor Tim Noakes says. Noakes is the co-founder of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and the Discovery Health Professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town. At the recent Discovery Health/Personal Finance Health Focus seminars, he spoke about how the lifestyle of our children will affect our national healthcare bill in the future.

Children who participate in school sport are more likely to develop the habit of being active than those who do not take part in school sport.

Inactive, unhealthy children grow up to be inactive, unhealthy adults, and both cost the country money in terms of its healthcare expenditure, Professor Tim Noakes says.

"Physical education used to be important in South Africa. But it is no longer, and if we continue to neglect it, the consequences will be enormous," Noakes says.

The US has lost the battle against childhood obesity and Australia may have too, Noakes says. "We, in South Africa, are 10 to 15 years behind Australia and North America, so it's very exciting that we still have a chance to win this battle," Noakes says.

Why we need sport

Noakes lists the following reasons for promoting sport and physical activity, particularly in schools:

  • Lifetime participation in physical activity is beneficial to health. "Physical inactivity is one of the prime risk factors of coronary heart disease," Noakes says. By being physically active, you reduce the risk of a first heart attack, he says.

  • Habitual levels of physical activity appear to be falling, not least in those countries with superior records of performance at elite (or professional) level. Noakes says that an emphasis on elite sport does not increase participation in sport and improve the health of a nation.

    For example, the US has dominated the Olympics since the beginning of the Games, yet the incidence of obesity and diabetes in the US is on the rise, Noakes says.

    In 1991, five out of 50 states in the US had an obesity rate of over 14 percent. In 1998, 40 states in the US had an obesity rate of over 14 percent.

    The incidence of diabetes in the US has risen too. In 2002, the US spent a staggering $160 billion - 19 percent of the country's total health bill - on the treatment of diabetes.

  • School sport establishes norms for life-long physical activity. Noakes says school sport is about promoting participation by all - and not about winning, which is an "egocentric, adult value that is important in the appropriate context, but not the most important outcome in school sport".

    Children rate winning as 14th on their list of important factors in sport, Noakes says. They prefer the social interaction that sport allows. "The activity is everything, and the outcome is of a lesser consequence to them. But what's the first thing we ask our children after a sporting event: 'Did you win?'"

    Noakes says parents and teachers need to be re-educated about the real importance of participation in sport in a child's life. "We need to accept that the most important measure of a school is the quality of its academics. The function of sport should be to promote health education, self-development and self-acceptance to make each athlete his or her own hero."

    What's stopping us

    Noakes says the enemies of mass participation in physical activity are:

  • A first-world economy. People in countries with a high gross domestic product (GDP) are more likely to overeat than people in countries that have a low GDP, Noakes says.

  • High success in Olympic competition. Countries that win the most gold medals at the Olympic Games are those with the unhealthiest populations when it comes to preventable diseases of lifestyle, such as heart disease. In elite sport, "money in equals medals out", Noakes says.

    The more a country spends on nurturing its elite athletes, the greater the chances are that its athletes will succeed. But this concentration of resources on the talented few is probably to the detriment of the majority.

  • The fast-food industry. Noakes says that in 1991, a Regular Mac (a McDonald's burger) had 627 calories and in 1998, a Super Size Mac had 1 805 calories - the equivalent of the daily food intake of a 70-kilogram man in the developed world.

  • Television viewing. We amuse ourselves by watching TV - sometimes sport - instead of participating in sport or a healthier pastime.

  • Absence of sport. The removal of sport and physical education from the school curriculum.

  • No facilities for the disadvantaged. The absence of sport and physical education in South Africa's disadvantaged communities.

    Winners are born

    Noakes says that increasingly school sport is taking on the characteristics of professional sport. It has become too much like work, with a focus on an outcome - and that is to win.

    Many people think we have school sport so that we can nurture the next generation of champions. But you need to be born with a disposition to exceptional physical abilities if you are to be a champion. School sport alone cannot make a champion out of someone who does not have those special physical abilities. "However we must acknowledge that we remain competitive in international sport because of the competitive nature of school sport in South Africa."

    But, school sport should be fun for the majority, Noakes says, and young athletes should not be subject to harmful competitive stresses, such as the fear of failure; injury; competitive burnout; and the temptation to dope - all in the pursuit of winning.

    "Winning is usually beyond the control of the individual. The idea that anyone can be a trained to be a champion is nonsense," he says. "There are probably fewer professional athletes than there are actuaries in South Africa. Actuaries cannot be made. They must be genetically disposed. The same applies to athletes."

    Noakes says inherited traits determine, to a large extent, exceptional sporting ability. He says 50 percent of the greatest runners in the world are Kenyans, who come from the Rift Valley region in Kenya. The success of Kenyan runners is in part due to genetic selection, Noakes says.

    Sir Garfield Sobers, the greatest cricketer in the world, was never coached - nor was Sir Donald Bradman, the greatest batsman of all time. They taught themselves by playing childlike games without the unnecessary expectations of overbearing parents, Noakes says.

    The good news

    The government is putting physical education back into the curriculum, Noakes says, and is adopting a school sports charter, which will be launched in September.

    Noakes says it could be "one of the most important healthcare promotion interventions in South Africa".

    "It's up there with the polio vaccination," he says. "If we do nothing, more children will die of heart disease, diabetes and obesity than ever before. Exercise and good nutrition have the same potential benefits for the entire population as a safe vaccine did for protection against polio."

    The school sports charter will involve children, parents and teachers to address lifestyle modification and diet in addition to physical activity.