Imagine a disease that is a precursor to cancer and diabetes, while also threatening your heart, skeletal system, sleep, mood, stress levels, balance and cognition.
If this sounds too bad to be true, think again. Such a health crisis is upon us. It is so severe that the WHO blames it for at least 2.6 million deaths annually, a number not far behind total global deaths from Covid-19 since this time last year, which stands at around 3 million people.
Unlike today's pandemic that on the whole poses a greater risk to adults, this disease is a grave threat to our children in particular. And unlike Covid-19, we have known about it for decades.
In 2019, 38 million children under the age of 5 were thought to be overweight or obese globally. A recent joint study conducted by the University of Sharjah, UAE University and the American University of Beirut has found that one in five Arab infants between the ages of 0-2 in the UAE are at risk of becoming too heavy due to poor diet and nutrition. Speaking about the importance of the findings, one of the professors involved in the project said that “the crucial first 1,000 days of life is a period critical to forming dietary habits that define health throughout our lifetime". With results suggesting that just 16 per cent of toddlers are consuming enough fruit, and seven per cent already considered obese, parents across the country would do well to take these results as a warning.
Yesterday, The National reported on another study, this time undertaken by NYU Abu Dhabi, which found that only 19 per cent of youngsters from two private schools clocked up the recommended daily 30 minutes of physical exercise. The survey gathered data in 2019 from 133 students, and showed a particularly alarming lack of activity among girls, of whom only nine per cent met the target.
A healthy lifestyle in adults maintains well-being and prevents illness. For children, the benefits are even more important. Whether it be a good diet increasing bone density, physical activity establishing the fine motor skills to allow young people to write and tie their shoelaces, or socialising through team sports, good health sets children up for life.
Such findings, therefore, could not be more timely. The young have experienced an unprecedented break in their school routines during the pandemic, trading in the playground and classroom for an indoor education behind a screen. Authorities around the globe are scrambling to limit the interruption to young people's learning during this difficult period. Equal attention should be given to its consequences for their health.
There is some hope. The importance of childhood well-being is increasingly recognised in the GCC. In 2019, the UAE implemented a sugar tax to fight obesity among youngsters. A similar levy was imposed in Saudi Arabia. The very fact that the above two studies were conducted by Emirati institutions shows growing desire to solve these public health issues.
Covid-19 brought the world to a standstill. For too many young people, it has quite literally done so. But with this much focus on global health, we could use it to instil good habits, supporting our children on the path to long and healthy lives.