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Change attitudes – challenge obesity

Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

Change attitudes – challenge obesity

By using unconventional methods, the city of Seinäjoki in western Finland has managed to significantly reduce obesity among children and young people.

”Obesity is far easier to prevent than to cure”, says Ulla Frantti-Malinen, who coordinates the welfare and health promotion campaign in Seinäjoki. She speaks from experience. Since the start of the Lihavuus laskuun (Overcoming Obesity) programme, excellent results have been achieved in the fight against obesity among children and young people.

In 2011, in Seinäjoki, which has a population of 60,000 inhabitants, 14 per cent of 7-year-olds and 16.1 per cent of 11-year-olds were overweight, while in 2015 the figures had fallen to only 8.7 per cent of 7-year- olds and 8.2 per cent of 11-year-olds. The reduction by over 7 percentage points in some age groups is so great that even those involved in developing the programme were surprised.

In Finland every child is entitled to free school lunches, and Seinäjoki has promoted healthy eating at school by reducing the amounts of salt and fat in the food served. This is something that is stressed from early childhood on. ”It is important to constantly repeat the message about healthy eating habits”, says Ulla Frantti-Malinen. The comprehensive network of child welfare clinics in Finland has played a key role in the success of these efforts. The clinics are part of a healthcare service run by the municipality, which is free for all expectant mothers and children under school age.

  • Ulla Frantti-Malinen is Seinäjoki’s coordinator for welfare and health promotion in the city. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • At the Tikkuvuori day-care centre, even the small children eat their meals without help in the dining room. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • In the playground outside the children are allowed to climb. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • At Toukolanpuisto School even the maths class can be pretty moving. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • Students can change their seat for an exercise ball. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • There are also standing desks in the classroom. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • Changing your position helps you to concentrate. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • Place and posture make no difference as long as you’re learning effectively. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • Dancing during the lesson gives the kids new energy. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

  • Some classrooms in Toukolanpuisto School have got rid of desks completely. Photo (CC BY-SA): Roosa Vastamäki

”Our aim is to ensure that fewer children grow up to be obese adults”, explains Ulla Frantti-Malinen. The Overcoming Obesity programme is one of the town’s welfare and health targets, and it will be continued at least until the year 2020. For this purpose, Seinäjoki has appointed a director responsible for all aspects of welfare and health and promotion.

The national Liikkuva koulu (Active School) project has entered the arena at just the right time to support the Overcome Obesity project. It uses a wide range of often unconventional methods to increase the amount of physical exercise at schools and thus to promote the wellbeing of students.

Active learning

Most of Seinäjoki’s schools are involved in the national Active Schools programme, which is part of the project fighting obesity. At Toukolanpuisto School, some of the classrooms no longer have traditional desks. Instead, they are furnished with balance boards, taping on the floors, gym apparatus and basketball nets. The amount of noise in the classroom has increased, but so has the children’s concentration. ”A quiet work environment and learning are of course the priority, but the children’s concentration improves when they are allowed to move about from time to time”, says Timo Jouppila, who teaches a third-year class.

The project’s most difficult task is to change the teachers’ attitudes. At Toukulanpuisto School they have also looked carefully at the rules and noticed that often certain things have been forbidden simply to make life easier for the teachers. Now, during the breaks the students are allowed to cycle and skateboard – wearing a helmet of course.

Kati Männikkö teaches a fourth-year class. In her classroom there are conventional desks, but also standing desks, exercise mats, a sofa and a ”quiet corner”. The students can choose to change their seat during the class for an exercise ball or an exercise mat on the floor.

At the beginning of the lesson, Kati Männikkö uses a game to test the students’ skills. Slips of paper with arithmetic tasks are put up all around the classroom walls. The children run from one task to another and then, taking a few more steps, go back to their own desks with the slips of paper where they have written the answers. At the end of the lesson, the work is interrupted for a few minutes and they all get up to dance together.

”The main thing is that the students realise the importance of physical exercise, so that it becomes a life-long habit”, Kati Männikkö sums up.

Running permitted

Tikkuvuori kindergarten is a day-care centre for more than 200 children. Founded in 2012, the centre has from the start given thought to healthy food and habits, for instance by giving children opportunities to exercise as often as possible. No special times are set aside for sports, but physical exercise is a part of everyday activity.

”It’s natural for children to run around and play – they don’t need much encouragement to do that”, says Pauliina Suvisalmi, head of the day-care centre. The greatest change has been in the attitudes of the carers. ”We shouldn’t always be telling the children not to run. Running is allowed, but it’s our job to make sure that it’s a safe place for the children to run around in”, adds Pauliina Suvisalmi.

So running is allowed at Tikkuvuori day-care centre, but sweets are prohibited. The amount of sugar has been reduced and fresh fruit and berries added to all the snacks the children have during breaks. In Finland it is common in many day-care centres and schools for children to bring their group or class sweets or other treats on their birthdays. Some of the families even bring birthday cakes. Of course birthdays are still celebrated in the day-care centre, but the birthday child does not necessarily need to bring goodies with them for their classmates.

The aim of the Overcome Obesity programme is not to concentrate only on problems, according to Ulla Frantti-Malinen: „Our work Is not all about obesity, but about wellbeing. Our main target is to help and encourage children and young people in every way.”


    December 2016
    Food & Trinken
    Finland, Seinäjoki

    The „Overcoming Obesity“ Programme


    Roosa Vastamäki
    is a freelance journalist from Turku, south-west Finland.

    Translated by

    Rosemary MacKenzie



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