School sport is often the only physical exercise many children get, a nutritionist said as it emerged that some schools provide little extra-curricular activity. Ministry of Education officials are working to address a disparity between the after-school programmes offered in Government and private schools. Private schools offer many after-school activities, including sport. Rania Halawani, a nutritionist in Dubai, said parents and teachers should remember that school is not simply about academic performance and development. "Exercise in schools is maybe the only opportunity for kids to play. This is due to many things such as culture. Unless children are exercising in a group in school they will not be able to exercise in the house. "We should not only focus on the academic side of education. Exercise is so crucial to a healthy mind and body." In its 2005 Global School-based Student Health Survey, the World Health Organisation found that only 19.5 per cent of the children surveyed were physically active for at least an hour a day. It also found that almost one third of children in the UAE are overweight or at risk of becoming so. There is also a high prevalence of young people affected by diabetes and obesity. Children as young as seven are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, something which usually affects people in middle age. Complications from diabetes include cardiac and vascular disease, blindness and depression. Overweight children are also at greater risk of developing high blood pressure and high cholesterol, bone and joint problems, and social and psychological problems such as low self-esteem. Ms Halawani said: "I always recommend children do between one and two hours of play and exercise a day. This helps them keep a healthy body and mind. "It does not just affect their physical state but also their mental state." In September, the Ministry of Health, which has jurisdiction over the northern emirates, said it would conduct a comprehensive review of students' health that will consider both the psychological and physical condition of pupils. Doctors will assess thousands of school-age children to get a full picture of the state of children's health. "There is a serious health problem emerging among very young children, with increased incidents of diabetes and obesity. We've got to pay attention to that," said Ellen Gannett, director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College in the US, pointing to health problems among American children which are linked to lifestyle. Ms Gannett said that after-school programmes, which provide more opportunities for children to be active, are part of the solution. Dr Hisham al Khatib, a paediatric specialist at the Nasser Medical Consultant Centre in Dubai, said after-school activities had to be carefully planned before they were introduced. "First we need to make sure the infrastructure is available at all the schools," he said. "A lot of schools do not have playgrounds or other facilities like this. "In this country it is too hot in the summer to do activities outside, but how many schools have ventilated places for children to play? As a parent this is something I would like to see." At the annual Arab Children's Health Congress in March this year, Mr Khatib spoke out about banning vending machines in schools and introducing more healthy snacks. He also said most pupils were given little information about healthy eating and the importance of physical activity. "Children need healthy diets, physical exercise and mental exercise. It is a package; each one is important and should have its own time and place." There are more opportunities for children to exercise. From Wednesday to Nov 15, the Etihad rugby festival in Abu Dhabi includes free training sessions for children and a junior tournament. More than 1,700 children will take part in the two-day Abu Dhabi Harlequins Junior Rugby Tournament and seven- to 12-year-olds can participate in specialist training clinics at the Al Ghazal Golf Club rugby pitches. firstname.lastname@example.org * Additional reporting by Kathryn Lewis
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