Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 November 2019

Keeping children active is ‘a global challenge’

Most school children worldwide do not get enough physical activity every day, experts say.

ABU DHABI // Many schoolchildren around the world are not getting enough exercise daily, in what experts describe as a “global challenge”.

It is recommended that children have an hour of moderate to physical activity every day, but in dozens of countries, fewer than 40 per cent of schoolchildren take the required amount of exercise, according to a report published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

Only 17 per cent of children in the UAE and 10 to 15 per cent of Qatar’s children met the daily recommendation in 2010. But the problem is not limited to the Gulf.

“It is a global problem that requires immediate action,” said Dr Tom Loney, programme coordinator for the master’s degree in public health at UAE University and chief scientific officer of the UAE’s’ 2016 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.

The study analysed school student health surveys from 2005 and 2010 to evaluate pupil physical activity levels and create report cards for countries, grading them on overall physical activity, active transport methods, sedentary behaviors, support from family, community, and government strategy.

Lower-income countries were better than higher-income ones in terms of physical activity and sedentary behaviors, but were worse in areas such as family support, community and government strategy. Average grades for all indicators combined were highest in Denmark, Slovenia and the Netherlands.

In Canada, 9 per cent of children ages 5 to 17 get enough daily exercise, compared with 19 per cent in England. In the United States, 22 per cent of six to 19-year-olds met the recommendations.

There is also a gender gap, according to the surveys.

“Globally and in the UAE, boys are more physically active than girls, and this disparity widens during adolescence,” said Dr Loney.

“In the UAE only 13 per cent of girls and 23 per cent of boys achieve the daily recommended level of physical activity, and this pattern is similar in other countries, such as the United States, where 26 per cent of boys and 17 per cent of girls were considered physically active.”

Slovenia had far higher levels of physical activity among children, with 86 per cent of boys and 76 per cent of girls ages 6 to 18 meeting the criteria.

“Slovenia achieves this by ensuring that all schools offer physical activity opportunities to their students, and the majority of Slovenian students are physically active for at least 200 minutes per week during school days,” Dr Loney said.

Countries have different approaches to get kids moving, said Dr Loney. In Zimbabwe, more than 80 per cent of children walk or cycle to school, rather than using motorised transport. In the UAE, about 20 per cent of children walk or cycle to school.

“One common trait between these three countries is that physical activity is a cultural norm – being physically active is not just a choice but a way of life,” said Dr Loney.

“We need physical activity to become a daily habit in the UAE so that the entire population, from grandparents to grandchildren, become more physically active and can reap the physical and mental health benefits of an active lifestyle.”

A report on obesity in the Middle East from the Economist Intelligence Unit, released earlier this year, showed that rates of obesity and being overweight top global charts among young adults and teenagers in the region, and that they are also among the least active.

Dr Lee Hudson, general paediatrician and consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in the UK, explained that being obese or overweight is also linked to mental health problems in some children.

“The best treatment for obesity is prevention, and educating the family and children about healthy ways of living, including eating well and exercising regularly, is vital,” he said.

He suggested that adults should set good examples around food and exercise.

“Sharing a healthy lifestyle in the entire family will ensure that children are given the best chance at a healthy and long life,” Dr Hudson said.


Updated: December 11, 2016 04:00 AM