Nearly a quarter of young children believe that playing video games and reading a book count as physical exercise, according to a new survey that casts the spotlight on the lack of education when it comes to healthy living.
The YouGov poll asked 249 children in the UAE, ages six to 11, about exercise, and healthy lifestyles. It was conducted in April for Oman Insurance and the insurance company Bupa Global, which launched a series of presentations on healthy habits at schools across the country on Sunday.
But the survey showed it was not awareness that most children lacked but parental support. Children were relatively well informed on most issues, with 94 per cent of children understanding the factors behind a healthy lifestyle.
But 60 per cent said they would be motivated to eat healthier food and exercise more if they received more time and affection from their parents. Nearly two thirds identified parents as their biggest role model.
The findings are no surprise to children.
Khalid Al Kamali, a 14-year-old Emirati pupil at Repton School, credits his father with helping him lose nine kilograms.
A year ago, his favourite place was the couch and running up the stairs left him out of breath.
"I saw myself as fat, lazy, slow. I felt really shy to go [play] and be called names," he told The National.
It was only at his father’s gentle insistence that he began to play football with his cousins.
“I just went and everybody respected me as an equal and I started to make a change and respect myself. Last year, I couldn’t do many things that I can do. Now I can swim and run on the beaches. I do horse riding.”
Khalid says children his age already know the difference between healthy and unhealthy food. It is a role model who makes the difference.
“For a kid, I would say the number one role model is the parents and the kids basically reflect what the parents do,” he said. “So if my dad was just sitting on the couch, I would do the same. Whatever my dad does, I copy him. He loves sports and he’s the one who encouraged me.”
About one in three children in the UAE are obese or overweight. For Emiratis the figure is higher, with about one in five children considered to be obese.
This week, Sheikh Khalifa Medical City announced plans to offer intragastric balloon surgery to tackle obesity in children as young as 11 who weigh double the average weight of a child.
“A lot of parents do not even realise their child is obese,” said said Amulya Saxena, a paediatric surgeon who spoke at Repton School on Sunday. “They think they’re just chubby at a young age and will be a healthy adult later on.”
National guidelines on labelling sugar content in easy to read units, like cubes instead of grams, could help children and parents visualise sugar intake.
Cooking, shopping and packing a lunch with parents will help children develop a love for healthy food, said year-six pupil Amy Magro. “This might sound a bit weird, but my favourite food is spinach,” said Amy, who is 11 and originally from Ireland. “It just appeals.”
She credits her mother for this discovery and adds the leafy green to curries, smoothies and, of course, salads. “A few days ago we went to the food court and I was about to take a soft drink, and my mom was like, ‘remember to be healthy and don’t eat too much’. She lets me chose but she influences.”
One of the best things parents can do is log off, said David Cook, the school’s headmaster.
“The key thing that I got from the research is actually how much pupils still admired and listened to their parents,” he said. He suggested parents teach children the importance of a sit-down meal away from a screen, and monitor assigned homework to see if it can be done offline.
Lifelong habits come from mentoring, said Dhruz Parekh, a 10-year-old pupil. “Or you won’t learn how to be independent and make your own decision.”