Move it or lose it, kids - exercise is a must for children

With the use of technology and rates of youth obesity increasing, we look at how to keep your children active and healthy during the summer.

Children play at a park at Salam Street, Abu Dhabi. While finding activities during the summer can be difficult, staying active is vital for children’s health. Silvia Razgova / The National
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Move it or lose it, kids – that's the warning from experts when it comes to the long-term health of our young people.

With close to 30 per cent of the global population now classified by the World Health Organization as either overweight or obese, plus a concerning number of children needing chiropractors as a result of increased screen time, it’s more important than ever that we focus on keeping children active.

Aside from the physical benefits associated with regular exercise, research has shown that healthy, physically active children are more likely to be academically motivated, alert and successful. Physical competence is also said to build self-esteem at every stage of development.

“The lifestyles of children now are so different from what they were for children even one or two generations ago,” says the Abu Dhabi-based chiropractor Steven Marsland. “They are much more sedentary, spend much more time indoors, and have lives that revolve around computers and television.”

Keeping children active is more of a challenge in the UAE, particularly during the hot summer months, but health experts say finding an activity your child can do year-round is key to keeping them happier and healthier in the longer term.

“There is obviously a limit to how much time kids can be outside playing in the UAE, but in general, children should be physically active for a minimum of one hour per day, though ideally this would be around the three-hour-a-day mark,” says Marsland, who has found he’s seeing more children at his practice at the Canadian Medical Center. “Our bodies are designed to be active throughout the day, not to sit for the majority of the time – sitting is so bad for us on so many levels, and ultimately our bodies are not designed for it – we are designed to move.”

For one Abu Dhabi couple, Gina and Jerry Durossette, finding a balance between the technological distractions of everyday life and physical activity is a challenge when it comes to their 7-year-old daughter, Gail.

“We are very much aware of the need for her to be engaged in activities,” Gina says. “The summers here in the UAE make it difficult to plan and encourage ­outdoor activities. We would like to see more affordable indoor activities for children, such as tennis, football, even golf; maybe a couple of air-conditioned stadiums.”

Gina admits that even though Gail has to be torn away from devices at times, especially the iPad, she does take part in tae kwon do and enjoys swimming.

“She does look forward to swimming if it is chilled water, and is always looking to play games with other children if they’re available,” she adds.

Sarah Yasmeen Ali’s 2-year-old son Ahmed is at a very impressionable age, and she’s adamant about having him grow up with regular activity a part of his life.

“I think children need more physical activity than anything else. I would love for my kids to be as active as I was growing up,” the Abu Dhabi-based mum of two says.

Ali grew up in New York, and spent every weekend at Central Park, which she loved.

“We learnt how to swim, rollerblade and ice skate from very early on. Television was limited to an hour a night after dinner and Saturday mornings for weekend cartoons,” she says. “I definitely like Ahmed to be active during the day, he sleeps better at night. The weather is really hot right now, so we don’t go out much, but during the cooler weather we take him to the park across the street every day for an hour or two.”

Marsland says that for children whose lifestyle habits or everyday routines aren’t where they should be, it’s becoming obvious in their posture – they usually have slouched, rounded ­shoulders, with their head positioned too far forward.

“Their muscles are very weak, and they have little or no postural and core muscle strength – if their situation doesn’t change, this is only going to get worse, and lead them into serious spinal and other health issues later in life,” he says.

For Lana Kaati, who heads up the Abu Dhabi Arab Moms group, and has a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, posture is one of her biggest concerns as a parent.

“This is a major issue. When you look, their neck is always in the wrong posture, especially when they are playing on the iPad,” Kaati says. “I try to adjust their seating position so they look straight rather than down.”

Yoga is an activity said to be beneficial in keeping children moving from an early age. Leila Knight, a yoga instructor with Advantage Sports UAE, says it’s a great way to encourage children to respect and pay attention to their bodies.

“It physically enhances their flexibility, strength, coordination and body awareness,” she says. “Mentally, it improves concentration, relaxation and a sense of calmness. It teaches them how to deal with stress in a positive way.”

Knight says the beauty of yoga is that its non-competitive nature reduces the stress of expectation children may feel with other sporting activities, and therefore helps to increase self-­confidence.

“It is very important for children to be active, they have a lot of energy and need to use it up,” she says.

But for those who can’t afford the sporting activities and classes on offer – the summer camps, ballet lessons, tae kwon do and so on – Marsland says there are several simple exercises that can be done at home to help children increase strength and get moving, including activities such as push-ups, box jumps, walking lunges, walk angels and chair squats. Any good chiropractor or occupational therapist can you put you on the right path.

While physical activity is ­important for the body, having a healthy mind is just as important, and being active can help in that regard, too.

Much like adults, when children are more active, they strengthen their muscles, sleep better, control their weight and have a better outlook on life.

“Having a healthy, balanced lifestyle is critical in supporting emotional well being as well as emotional development,” says Ross Addison, a cognitive behaviour therapist at the Camali Clinic in Dubai. “Striking a healthy balance between getting adequate sleep, enough exercise and a good diet has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, improve mood and increase concentration and attention. This is so important for young people, given the demands of school work, making friends or maintaining friendships, transitioning between school years or even changing school.”

The World Health Organization’s global strategy on diet, physical activity and health states: “Physical activity has been associated with the psychological benefits in young people by improving their control over symptoms of anxiety and depression ... Participation in physical activity can assist in the social development of young people by providing opportunities for self-expression, building self-confidence, social interaction and integration.”

WHO’s global strategy also notes that physically active young people probably more readily adopt other healthy behaviours – for example, avoiding drug use. There’s even evidence to suggest that exercise can help reduce the symptoms of ADHD. A study conducted by Dr Betsy Hoza, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, showed that for children between kindergarten and second grade, as little as half an hour of exercise a day had a positive, measurable effect on focus and mood.

Dr Hoza is quoted in an article on as saying: “The most important message is that physical activity is important for children’s development regardless of whether you have ADHD or not ... There’s other research that suggests it has cognitive benefits for all children, and we all know the physical benefits.”

With all of this in mind, and a few more weeks of the school holidays left, it’s a good time to get children active and start them on the path to a better ­future.

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