x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Get physical, not fat, is the message for Dubai pupils

Survey points to not enough sport and too much junk food as 54% of students admit they are too lazy to take any exercise.

DUBAI // As more than half the students in the city's private schools admit they are too lazy to exercise and more than one in three are either overweight or obese, the Dubai Health Authority is calling for a broad sweep of reforms to improve nutrition and increase exercise levels.

The DHA's initiative follows a survey that revealed senior pupils in Dubai private schools spend an average of 70 per cent less time exercising than their counterparts in the US; 40 per cent get less than the minimum amount of exercise recommended by the World Health Organisation and too many eat too much junk food. "In America, secondary school students exercise for around 300 minutes a week," said Dr Hamid Hussain, school health director of the DHA. "In Dubai we have found that 23 per cent of males and 42 per cent of females do less than 90 minutes, and this is something we have to challenge.

"We are working with schools to put more focus on physical education to ensure that all pupils practise for at least 150 minutes a week, whether that be in school, through extra-curricular activities or in their spare time." Dr Hussain said schools, parents and the wider community had to work together to encourage children to have a healthier lifestyle. The survey of 746 students in grades 10 to 12 across a broad spectrum of Dubai's private secondary schools revealed that 35 per cent of them were obese or overweight and 54 per cent said laziness was the reason they took too little exercise.

The survey has been conducted annually by the DHA since 2006 to identify levels of physical fitness and attitudes to exercising among different nationalities and social classes. With only 14 per cent of students citing lack of time or money as an excuse for not exercising, Dr Hussain said the culture of laziness and poor diet had to be challenged. However, with private schools following different curriculums it was impossible to legislate for change and a public awareness campaign was needed.

"The first stage in solving this problem is developing an awareness programme for students, parents and teachers to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. "Some schools have been monitoring the contents of packed lunches and there have been cases where parents have sent children to school with McDonald's meals. Parents must have more awareness of the damaging effect fast food has on their children.

"In such cases letters are sent home to parents and some schools even bring them in for a meeting. "We are going to conduct a consultation of meals in schools to measure their nutritional status and promote healthy items such as fruit and vegetables. Some schools have already adopted healthy menus but others still serve food that is high in fat." The second stage of the plan will call for training for teachers and regular community meetings involving parents to help tackle the problem.

The standards of nutritional awareness and physical education vary markedly across the spectrum of private schools, depending on their infrastructure, facilities and cultural origin. One worrying trend revealed by the survey is that many schools punish pupils for poor behaviour by excluding them from physical exercise sessions. The DHA wants to stop this practice and to encourage schools to offer more opportunities for extra-curricular sport and exercise and to integrate exercise into other subjects, such as science and drama.

"Arabic schools tend to place less emphasis on exercise and sport," said Dr Hussain. "In American schools there is a culture of offering after-school sessions and summer camps where children can play a wide range of sport and participate in school teams. "There are many factors that determine levels of exercise, including social class, culture and weather, and it is not for us to specify the policy of each school, but we hope that they will take our recommendations on."

Greg Campbell, 30, a PE teacher at the Wellington School, said that in many schools nutrition and exercise were a low priority. He also said a lack of adequate facilities to provide more physical education or sporting opportunities for pupils was a major problem. "Many schools only have one PE lesson a week," said Mr Campbell, "and this is mostly due to the fact that sports facilities are too small for the number of students, which limits the number of lessons that can be scheduled.

"PE is an important part of a well-rounded curriculum and is critical in the physical, social and mental development of children. Support from home is a key factor in generating the enthusiasm of children for sport, especially with girls. "Most canteens are privately run and there aren't nutritional regulations in place. This means that many schools serve food with high sugar and salt content." The DHA is working closely with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority to increase the time given to physical education in the curriculum. It has also called on schools to invest in improved facilities and equipment for sport and exercise.

The DHA is hoping an increased emphasis on healthy eating and exercise will lead to a five per cent annual drop in the number of schoolchildren who are either obese or overweight. The yearly surveys will monitor whether this target is being met. "This problem will not be solved within two years," said Dr Hussain. "It requires an attitude and behaviour change in the long term and greater effort not only by schools but different sectors working in partnership to achieve these goals. The city has six sport clubs and all offer free membership for schoolchildren, so the Government are taking steps to promote sport and exercise but these need to be stepped up."

tbrooks@thenational.ae