Only a fraction of children in the UAE get the recommended amount of exercise during school days, a study has suggested, with girls particularly inactive.
Research carried out by New York University Abu Dhabi and Zayed University, at two private schools in the emirate, found only 19 per cent of youngsters accumulated 30 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day.
Data collection occurred in the spring of 2019, reflecting the landscape before pandemic conditions affected children's lives.
Even having a physical education lesson on the timetable had little impact on the amount of MVPA experienced on a given day.
“Perhaps a significant amount of what is supposed to be 30 minutes of physical activity during PE classes is wasted on instructions or waiting time or lining up the children,” said Dr Abdishakur Abdulle, associate director of the Public Health Research Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi and the study’s senior author.
To measure their activity, 133 pupils at the two schools in Abu Dhabi – just over half of whom were obese – wore devices called accelerometers that measured their movement for up to five non-consecutive days. Four-fifths of the children were Arab and their average age was about 10 years.
The researchers worked out how much time the children spent moving during classes, lunch, break time, PE lessons and the school day as a whole.
A widely used guideline globally is that schoolchildren should have 60 minutes of MVPA per day, with the school day accounting for about half of this.
Most children fell short, with the deficit particularly acute for girls, just nine per cent of whom reached the 30-minute target, compared to 27 per cent of boys.
"The overwhelming majority of school children did not meet the recommended 30 minutes per day MVPA during school time," the researchers wrote in their paper in BMC Paediatrics, a journal that publishes peer-reviewed research articles.
“Girls substantially accumulated less MVPA and more sedentary minutes across all segments during the school days compared to boys.”
Schools, suggested Dr Abdulle, should “look at it again” to ensure that children were actually being physically active during PE.
One possibility is that children who do not enjoy a particular sport fail to engage properly in that lesson.
Another recommendation is that schools give children more free time, because both boys and girls were more active during lunch than during PE lessons.
“The child is doing what they like to do, whether it’s running around or wrestling,” Dr Abdulle said.
"Allowing free time is perhaps more effective than scheduled, structured physical activity as it is for now."
The study was co-written by Dr Rahma Ajja, an assistant professor at Zayed University, along with other researchers at Zayed University, All Saints University College of Medicine in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and at the University of Central Florida in the US.
Jeff Evans, managing director of the UAE educational consultancy Learning Key, said the amount of physical activity children experienced “varies widely across schools”.
“For example, in Abu Dhabi our private schools offer over 15 different curricula – the higher-performing and more diverse schools have regular local fixtures, break-time or after school leagues and clubs in many sports,” he said.
He said the emirate had “excellent” facilities and competitions for a wide range of sports, including athletics, cricket, baseball, jujitsu, rugby and swimming.
“Children who take part generally thoroughly enjoy their time and get to know classmates from other schools or areas,” he said.
“They learn respect, teamwork and resilience which adds to their academic progress.”
In Dubai he cited a number of efforts by schools to encourage children to be more active, with many taking part in the 30x30 Challenge, which aims for 30 minutes of exercise a day for 30 days.
“Other schools have integrated yoga for staff, parents and students to improve well-being and relaxation,” he said.
However, “a small but significant minority of schools” struggle to get pupils to be active and, given the high levels of diabetes in the UAE, he described the need for more exercise as “immense”.
Sometimes, he suggested, there was not enough support for children who wanted to stay behind after school for sport and who, as a result, had to be collected from school separately after the school buses had run.