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The Gymnasium at the Thomas L. Wells Public School, with has a mix of large windows, skylights and indoor lighting in Scarborough on December 19, 2012.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Fewer than half of Ontario's elementary schools have a health and physical-education teacher, raising questions about efforts to stem rising obesity rates among schoolchildren.

In a survey of elementary and high-school principals released Monday, advocacy group People for Education found than only 45 per cent of elementary schools have a specialist health and physical-education teacher, and the majority of them are part-time. At the same time, educators say they are struggling to fit 20 minutes of daily physical activity, as mandated by the province for Grades 1 to 8, into a packed school day.

"We're doing really well getting the marks up, but not so well on the health and well-being front," said executive director Annie Kidder.

Schools are the ideal place to promote physical activity and healthy eating. Many have started serving healthier foods in cafeterias, and bolstered their physical education curriculum. Yet, obesity rates are still climbing: One in three school-aged children is overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada.

Ms. Kidder said Ontario has many programs in place to encourage healthy lifestyles among children, but there's a lack of co-ordination and specialization. "It's one thing to just have curriculum and say 'Here, everybody deliver this.' It's another to really, truly have the expertise to think about kids' health and understand all of the components of health," she said.

The People for Education report noted a study of students in the Toronto District School Board that found fewer than half of them were provided with daily physical activity every day and none were receiving the full 20 minutes.

Mark Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, said there are huge discrepancies around physical education between provinces. Manitoba is the only province with mandatory physical education through to the end of high school. Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario have daily physical activity policies.

Dr. Tremblay said that as a former chair of the parent school advisory committee in New Brunswick, he saw many schools raise money to hire a physical-education teacher.

"We never do that for math teachers or language-arts teachers or even the librarian. Who decided that physical and health education is a basement dweller?" Dr. Tremblay asked. "It seems particularly misaligned given the world in which we live in and the trends that we're all aware of."

Dr. Tremblay said physical education should be a high priority. "You can think there isn't room in the curriculum for it, but the evidence suggests that if you do that daily physical activity and if you do quality physical education, your kids are going to benefit not only physically, but in their academic scores," he said.

The People for Education report also found that a quarter of elementary and high-school students don't have access to mental-health services.

The full survey, which will be released in May, was distributed across Ontario and saw a return rate of just over 20 per cent, or about 1,000 elementary and secondary schools.

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