DUBAI // The children at Jebel Ali Primary School know how to move.
Every week, each class has two hours of compulsory physical education and 90 per cent of the pupils participate in after-school sports including football, swimming, cricket and athletics.
"Leading a healthy lifestyle is an important life lesson and as a school it is our role to guide youngsters on this path," said Mark Webster, the head of the PE department.
What's more, studies show that physical activities outside the classroom lead to better results when pupils are behind their desks - and increased earning potential later in life.
Unfortunately, a survey by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) has found that teachers such as Mr Webster are the exception and not the rule.
Almost half of the 208 state and private schools surveyed by the DHA allow pupils to substitute PE classes with other activities, which is against regulations.
"The aim of the survey was to determine the physical-activity standards across schools in Dubai," said Laila Al Jassmi, the chief executive of the health policy and strategy sector at DHA. "This includes the facilities provided, the teachers' qualifications and experience in physical training."
In Government schools, the number of PE lessons was increased to three a week for pupils up to Grade 7 in 2010. High school pupils still take only two 40-minute lessons a week.
The authority has proposed making it compulsory for primary schools to hold 150 minutes of PE lessons a week and 225 minutes for pupils in secondary schools.
Ahmed Abdul Rahman, project manager for the Princess Haya Initiative for the Development of Health, Physical Education and School Sports, said they were also pushing for more sport in schools.
"More is better because the UAE has a big incidence of lifestyle diseases," said Mr Rahman.
Last year, providing treatment for diabetes cost the country US$6.6 billion (Dh24.24bn), figures from the strategy and technology consultancy firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, show. Treatment for cardiovascular disease is expected to account for 24 per cent of the total healthcare expenditure in 2025, according to the DHA.
PE is a graded subject in Government schools but teachers still give it less priority, officials say.
"It is not an option and every child must be exposed to some kind of activity at school," said Mr Rahman.
"We are training the teachers to make it fun so that children willingly attend these classes."
The DHA survey found 46 per cent of schools do not modify their programmes to include children with medical conditions such as asthma and diabetes. Mr Rahman said this was a big issue in state schools, which had to be addressed.
"Teachers do not differentiate between sports and PE and they make it very competitive," he said. "PE is an educational subject so, regardless of the child's ability, they need to participate."
Designed to Move, a report developed by the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education, the American College of Sports Medicine and Nike, suggests PE classes are failing across the globe.
Moderate to vigorous physical activity among American children has decreased by 38 minutes every year since 2008, the report said. In China, children get only 20 minutes of PE in school, with 92 per cent receiving none after school.
Yet researchers also found a direct correlation between increased physical activity and better academic performance, as well as improved health and career progression later in life.
At My Gym UAE, children as young as three months are introduced to fitness.
"We start with song, dance, gymnastics and structured play for young children," said Pia Bahri, the owner and a mother of two. "It gets their blood flowing and aids sleeping and academic success."
She said children at her gym also showed improved self-esteem and confidence.
Mr Webster agreed it was important to start young, because children who are exposed to an active lifestyle carry those habits into adulthood.
"Sport is not simply about the elite," he said. "It is about giving children opportunities to shine and achieve, whatever their ability."