A mini boot camp for primary school children may seem an extreme way of getting the healthy living message across but the idea is delivering impressive results for one Dubai school.
Children as young as four at Manor Primary School are taking part in a daily one mile (1.6km) walk around the school grounds, and other fitness sessions are being incorporated into the school curriculum.
Drastic measures were taken by the school’s headteacher, Karen Davies, after the Briton was shocked at just how unfit the children were.
Her methods may be more revolution than evolution but they are giving children a newfound love of exercise and the school, in Al Safa, has been receiving rave reviews from parents.
“As a new headteacher in Dubai, I found quite a lot of the children were unfit and had a weak core that affected their ability to sit properly at a table or to write for a period of time,” said Mrs Davies.
“Quite a few had reduced mobility, so I asked the question why.
“We noticed their stamina was shocking. There is a sports hall we use with a 100-metre lap, and I was shocked to find out how few pupils were able to complete a lap without stopping.
“Since then, we’ve introduced core strengthening exercises every day and also a mile a day walk.”
The World Health Organisation has identified childhood obesity as one of the most serious health challenges of the 21st century.
Globally, the number of overweight children under the age of 5 was estimated at 42 million in 2015.
In the same year, Dubai Health Authority research found 20 per cent of children under the age of 11 were obese, while 40 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds were classified as overweight.
A Ras Al Khaimah study of 44,942 children and young people published last year found similar results.
Those aged 3 to 18 were assessed, with 24 per cent deemed obese and 40 per cent overweight, and 5.7 per cent tipped the scales as morbidly obese. Of those who took part in the study, 90 per cent were Emiratis.
Children at Manor Primary from as young as 4 up to ages 11 and 12 are taking part in regular exercise during the school day.
Starting children early in a healthy living education is important to develop good habits that will last a lifetime, said Mrs Davies.
The school has 111 children, so the numbers are manageable. Children are also encouraged to do skipping, active play at break-times and ride their bikes, with help from teachers.
“A couple seriously struggled but, because of the way we teach, I tell the children to be proud of what they can do whatever their ability,” Mrs Davies said.
“Every child now either walks or runs a mile a day. We measured the distance around the school and teachers now take each class for a mile-a-day lesson. It also acts as a concentration break and gets them outside.
“Many children are indoors kids, so rarely go outside, particularly in the summer. We make sure they wear a hat, take a drinking bottle and walk in the shade.
“We have noticed much improvement in concentration in the class, particularly at the end of the day.”
The school has also banned the use of handheld electronic devices, a move supported by parents like Dr Sadaf Jalil Ahmed.
Dr Ahmed said the school is leading the way with its innovative approach towards healthy living.
“Manor Primary School is a smaller school but it has adopted strict, new measures to encourage youngsters to take up more exercise from an early age,” she said.
“It is having a positive effect on the children, and is an approach that should be developed by other schools.”
Children should take part in regular exercise from an early age, according to doctors, who say early years are crucial to developing good healthcare habits.
Overweight and obese children are likely to remain obese as adults and more likely to develop non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease at a younger age.
Dr Noobi Koya, a specialist paediatrician at the Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai, said: “Exercise and physical activity needs to be incorporated at a young age.
“You can’t just pull up a child in their teenage years and expect them to change. Exercise should be started as early as possible.
“After the first year, parents need to ensure there is 1 to 1.5 hours of activity during the day.”
A report card on physical activity for children and youth last year found just 17 per cent of UAE children achieved recommended levels of an hour of moderate to vigorous daily exercise.
“Children should not spend longer than an hour a day sitting doing no activity,” Dr Koya added.
“There is no limit on how much exercise children can have; if they want to be active then they should be allowed to be.”