Sunday, October 08, 2006

Exercise fails to cut obesity

When will people admit that a fat body is mostly the outcome of a genetic tendency towards overeating?

Giving young children more physical exercise does not stop them becoming obese, a study has shown. The Glasgow University study, based on work with more than 500 four-year-olds, counters the assumption that in an age dominated by television and computer games, children could slough off the pounds if they exercised more. The study, published in the British Medical Journal, set out to establish whether greater physical activity would prevent children from becoming overweight. They recruited 545 children in their last year at 36 nursery schools.

Half the schools instituted three extra half-hour sessions of physical play and activity every week, and parents were given information packs encouraging them to give their children more activity and less television. The other half had no extra activity or information. All the children were regularly weighed and measured and their body mass index (BMI - the relationship between weight and height used to check for obesity) was calculated. There was no difference between the groups. "We found no significant effect of the intervention on physical activity, sedentary behaviour or body mass index," wrote the researchers. Nor did the children show less tendency to sit about or more inclination to run around. The only positive finding was that the more active children had better motor and movement skills, which may make them more confident about doing physical activity in the future.

The authors say the study is one of the few into the prevention of obesity in children. Yet the problem is serious: in Scotland in 2001 at least 10 per cent of children aged four to five and 20 per cent aged 11 to 12 were obese. The researchers wrote: "Successful interventions to prevent obesity in early childhood may require changes not just at nursery, school and home but in the wider environment. Changes in other behaviours, including diet, may also be necessary."

The British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the study, accepted the research was solid, but said it did not mean it was not necessary to encourage children to run around and play. "It's absolutely vital for young children to be active," said prevention and care director Mike Knapton. "Although this study suggests that the benefits of a small amount of extra exercise for nursery children are not visible immediately, we know it's crucial to encourage good exercise habits from an early age. Children get less active as they get older so it's vital that youngsters get regular physical activity to lay the foundations for good health as they grow up."


Black tea 'soothes away stress'

Scientists have proved what many tea drinkers already know - a regular cuppa can help you recover more quickly from the stresses of everyday life. A team at University College London found black tea helps to cut levels of the stress hormone cortisol circulating in the blood. They found people who drank tea were able to de-stress more quickly than those who drank a fake tea substitute. The study appears in the journal Psychopharmacology.

In the study, 75 young male regular tea drinkers were split into two groups and monitored for six weeks. They all gave up their normal tea, coffee and caffeinated beverages, and then one group was given a fruit-flavoured caffeinated tea mixture made up of the constituents of an average cup of black tea. The other group was given a caffeinated placebo identical in taste, but devoid of the active tea ingredients.

All drinks were tea-coloured, but were designed to mask some of the normal sensory cues associated with tea drinking (such as smell, taste and familiarity of the brew). This was designed to eliminate confounding factors such as the 'comforting' effect of drinking a cup of tea. Both groups were subjected to challenging tasks, while their cortisol, blood pressure, blood platelet and self-rated levels of stress were measured.

In one task, volunteers were exposed to one of three stressful situations (threat of unemployment, a shop-lifting accusation or an incident in a nursing home), where they had to prepare a verbal response and argue their case in front of a camera. The tasks triggered substantial increases in blood pressure, heart rate and subjective stress ratings in both of the groups. However, 50 minutes after the task, cortisol levels had dropped by an average of 47% in the tea-drinking group compared with 27% in the fake tea group. Blood platelet activation - linked to blood clotting and the risk of heart attacks - was also lower in the tea drinkers. In addition, this group reported a greater degree of relaxation in the recovery period after the task.

Researcher Professor Andrew Steptoe said: "Drinking tea has traditionally been associated with stress relief, and many people believe that drinking tea helps them relax after facing the stresses of everyday life. "However, scientific evidence for the relaxing properties of tea is quite limited." Professor Steptoe said it was unclear what ingredients in tea were responsible. He said it was very complex, and ingredients such as catechins, polyphenols, flavonoids and amino acids had all been found to affect neurotransmitters in the brain. Nevertheless, the study suggests that drinking black tea may speed up our recovery from the daily stresses in life. "Although it does not appear to reduce the actual levels of stress we experience, tea does seem to have a greater effect in bringing stress hormone levels back to normal. "This has important health implications because slow recovery following acute stress has been associated with a greater risk of chronic illnesses such as coronary heart disease."


Britain bows to education reality

Crackdown on High School cheating

Sweeping cuts to GCSE coursework were announced yesterday in response to widespread fears that it has allowed students to copy from the internet or to get their teachers and parents to complete projects for them. Coursework completed by pupils at home will be scrapped in English literature, foreign languages, history, geography, classical subjects, religious studies, social sciences, business studies and economics for courses starting in 2009. Instead, the examinations watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), said that there would be more external exams and controlled assessments carried out in the classroom under strict supervision and marked by teachers. Coursework will continue in art, music, design and technology, PE and home economics. No final decision about English language and information technology has yet been made.

The details followed an announcement last week by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, that coursework would be cut from GCSE maths from next September. The announcement was accompanied by new research findings showing that the majority of teachers were not overwhelmingly worried about the use of the internet for coursework. Four in five (82 per cent) of the 100 subject heads surveyed for the QCA disagreed that their students made too much use of the internet for their GCSE coursework. English and music teachers were most likely to view coursework positively; religious studies teachers were the most sceptical about its value.

A far bigger problem with coursework, as far as the teachers were concerned, centred on the burden or marking coursework and the extra work it generated for students who have to meet project deadlines for a large number of different subjects all at the same time. While most teachers agreed they would like to retain an element of coursework, there was disagreement over how much and how it should be assessed.

In response, the QCA recommended that new ways be found to make written examinations more "challenging and fresh" and to improve the assessment of coursework. The recommendations follow a review of coursework ordered by Ruth Kelly, the former Education Secretary - instigated because a two-year review by the examinations watchdog had found evidence of widespread cheating. Revelations about pupils copying or buying coursework from the internet or getting someone else to do the work for them cast doubt on continually rising grades and raised questions about the credibility of vocational qualifications.

Mr Johnson accepted yesterday that more needed to be done to assure parents that coursework assessed pupils' work in a fair and robust way. "The changes will toughen up the way in which coursework is assessed so that the hard work of the vast majority of students is not undermined by questions of validity," he said. However, he added that coursework still had a place in the modern classroom. Done properly it helped young people to develop research and presentation skills and demonstrate a practical knowledge of a subject. "It is important that coursework retains its place within teaching and learning but we must ensure it remains a reliable and effectiveform of assessment," he said.

Ken Boston, the chief executive of the QCA, insisted that the current system of GCSE exams and coursework was robust. "QCA has provided both teachers and parents with further information on the help that they can provide and how best to authenticate a candidate's coursework." GCSEs replaced GCE O level and CSE exams in 1988. The element of coursework was introduced with GCSEs to test "skills not easily tested in timed, written examinations" and because the three-hour times written examination was seen as narrow and off-putting to many candidates


British police to choose what law they enforce?

London's police chief on Thursday launched an urgent review of a decision not to post a Muslim officer at the Israeli embassy after a newspaper reported that he had been excused on moral grounds. "Having learnt of this issue I have asked for an urgent review of the situation and a full report into the circumstances," Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said in a statement. The Sun newspaper reported that Constable Alexander Omar Basha told his bosses he was unable to help guard the embassy in west London because he morally objected to Israel's 34-day war against Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Police chiefs excused Basha last week but critics said they feared it would open the floodgates for officers of any religion or belief to refuse to carry out certain duties. John O'Connor, a former Metropolitan Police flying squad commander, told the Sun: "This is the beginning of the end for British policing. "If they can allow this, surely they'll have to accept a Jewish officer not wanting to work at an Islamic national embassy? Will Catholic cops be let off working at Protestant churches? Where will it end? This decision is going to allow officers to work in a discriminating and racist way."

The police said in a separate statement that officers occasionally asked to be moved from a specific duty. "Every case is considered separately, balancing the needs of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) against those of the individual and the role which he or she is asked to perform," it said.. "Cases are kept under review. However, the needs of the MPS take precedence and the organisation reserves the right to post an officer anywhere in the MPS." Basha is attached to the force's diplomatic protection group, the Sun said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has been trying to improve integration among Britain's ethnic and religious communities. It launched the campaign after suicide bomb attacks by four Islamists on London's transport network in July last year killed 52 commuters.


The end of privacy as we know it

What will Tony Blair be remembered for? The post-war debacle in Iraq? Billions largely wasted on unreformed public services? Half-baked constitutional reforms that have threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom?

How about the erosion of privacy and the transformation of Britain into the most snooped-on country in the world this side of Pyongyang? We have more CCTV cameras than the rest of Europe put together. We have thousands of speed cameras linked to numberplate recognition databases. We await with trepidation the arrival of the national identity database from 2008, entry on to which will make it an offence, for the first time, not to inform the "authorities" when we move home.

Again, for the first time, our medical records, perhaps our most intimate personal information, will be available on a national data "spine", rather than kept within the confines of our GP's files. Details of children will be placed on another database, with no obvious limit to how long this information will be kept. Will a classroom transgression pop out of the system 20 years hence to scupper some job application, with the victim unaware why?

Last week, in a significant announcement issued under the guise of an innocuous-sounding "information-sharing vision statement", the Government proposed to reverse the presumptions of confidentiality under which Whitehall has, until now, conducted its relationships with businesses and individuals. Departments will be able to share personal information obtained for one purpose with other departments that might want it for an entirely different reason. In effect, they will be able to gather all this data in one place, something we were always assured would not happen.

And there is more. The Government is about to enact the controversial part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) that it has held back for almost six years, after obtaining support for the legislation in Parliament on the grounds that it was crucial to the fight against terrorism and crime. If it was so important, why the delay? It makes it an offence not to give the police the key to an encrypted computer entry, should they request it. Failure to do so will mean a long prison sentence.

Now, I hear you say, so what? Surely all of these developments (and most have happened since Mr Blair came to power) are for our own good: to stop bad driving, track down criminals, save children from abuse, ensure prompt medical treatment, identify illegal immigrants and deter terrorists. The fact that there has been very little comment about Ripa, after such a huge fuss was made six years ago, suggests we have all become inured to such intrusions and hardly notice them - unlike visitors, who do. Relatives in London from America last week were shocked by the number of cameras everywhere and found them deeply sinister.

Have we have been bludgeoned into accepting the end of privacy? We now take it for granted that if someone refuses to hand over their data encryption key to the police, they must have something to hide. Perhaps they have, but it doesn't make it the business of the state unless it is illegal. There are plenty of people who want to keep things secret simply because they do not want others to see them.

Samuel Pepys wrote his diaries in shorthand (though the first transcribers thought they were encoded). If he were writing today on a computer, he would almost certainly have encrypted his entries, not because he was doing anything unlawful, but because he did not want his wife to find out what he had been up to with other women, nor certain notables to discover what he thought of them. They were private.

Now, on the assumption that we are all potential criminals, a new law will render such attempts at secrecy illegal. We may think we live in such a godforsaken world that, for the benefit of the majority, any concept of personal freedom as we used to understand it should no longer apply.

This is certainly the view of the Government. The Home Secretary, John Reid, said recently: "Sometimes we may have to modify some of our own freedoms in the short term in order to prevent their misuse by those who oppose our fundamental values and would destroy all of our freedoms." The Government believes it has struck the right balance and is supported by those who subscribe to the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" school of thought.

But the true criminal/terrorist/paedophile will find ways around this legislation, because that is what these people do; and those caught by it will often be unsuspecting innocents who have received an unsolicited encrypted message or have used a code in the past and forgotten the key.

I am by no means an "ultra" in these matters. There are clearly times when heightened surveillance is needed and, given the substantial threat of terrorism, this is one of them. It is also undoubtedly the case that paedophiles will try to hide their revolting photographic trade from prying eyes. But this Act is very widely drawn and can be invoked on the grounds of national security, for the purpose of preventing crime and "in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK". The scope here for misuse is clear.

There is also the concept of proportionality to be considered. Are we so embattled that we need, in Mr Reid's words, "to modify some of our own freedoms" to the point where they are almost unrecognisable from the liberties that our forefathers fought and died to preserve?

Once you accept that the government has the right to know where you are at all times, to demand that you tell its agents when you move home or to render up your private musings at its behest, then you have changed the nature of the individual's relationship to the state in a way that is totally alien to this country's historic, though ill-defined, covenant between the rulers and the ruled. If enough people say "so what?" to that, as well, then Mr Blair really has left a legacy, and it is a pernicious one.


No comments: