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Long screen time, wide waistline

17 May 2021

Weight gain rising concern among school children in these times of remote learning

With schools closed for on-site classes and outdoor play restricted due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, children are stuck at home with long screen hours and minimal physical activities. The situation has resulted in a worrisome trend of children gaining weight and many becoming obese.

Shaila Anjum, mother of two school-age children, is at her wits’ end. With schools closed, her children aren’t getting any physical activity – a common refrain among many mothers these days. Concerned about her daughter’s weight gain, she took her for a checkup. “After watching her for a few months and failing to make her do any kind of exercise, I panicked and visited a doctor.”

The doctor advised a thyroid test which showed her daughter’s parameter was borderline. “The first doctor we saw immediately prescribed thyroid medicines. I felt my worst nightmare was coming true as I, too, suffer from hypothyroidism. But we consulted another doctor who advised maintaining a healthy diet and 30 minutes of daily exercise.”

Seema Mallya, another mother of two school-age children, rues the fact that restrictions on social interaction have made them lazy and addicted to gadgets. “Besides, lack of physical activities makes their joints and muscles weak,” she said. 

Salim Khalfan al Musallami, a father of four, echoes the worry of many parents like Shaila and Seema – children have become lazy. “No matter how I hard I try, they are not motivated to exercise. The pandemic has taken its toll on children’s health.”

Sitting is the new smoking

For Dr Paul Joseph, a paediatrician with Badr al Samaa  Hospital, the trend is amply evident among his patients, more so in children older than five. “Weight gain and tending towards the obese range is going to cause a lot of metabolic problems – if not now, then in the future. Children tend to become diabetic and hypertensive at an early age.”

According to Balqees al Hassani, educationist and president of Knowledge Oman, recent research points towards the fact that sedentary life is more detrimental to health than smoking.

“Looking at the new normal in education or even at work – due to the pandemic – we are all bound to be sitting in front of computer screens for longer hours than normal. This is increasing our sedentary lifestyle and consequently risk of heart diseases, high blood pressure, poor mental health and a weaker immune system.”



Though COVID-19 restrictions have brought outdoor activities of schools to a grinding halt, rendering students’ lifestyle sedentary, Dr Sivakumar Manickam, chairman of the Board of Directors of Indian Schools in Oman, believes it is the collective responsibility of parents and schools to ensure children engage in physical activities. 

“Our children spend around five hours in online classes every day,” Seema said, adding that schools need to prioritise activities like yoga and physical exercise games. “These activities must be made enjoyable and fun.”

She is, however, aware of her role as a parent. “We need to set a new goal every day and reward children for completing these. These can be made interesting by including house chores.”

Balqees recommends children take a break from digital screens every 30 minutes for relief to the eyes and a couple of stretches and squats for the body. 

She noted that parents’ partnership in this matter is significant. “The more wellness conversations are on the table, the more awareness is generated as a result.”

Having observed the trend at close quarters, Dr Joseph said weight gain among children needs to be taken seriously by parents and advised “at least 30 minutes of physical activity – skipping, hula hoops or following aerobics exercise from a video  – every day”.

Besides physical activity, Dr Joseph also counts the food consumed significant to the current trend. “Children may tend to munch on something and parents should make sure whatever they eat is healthy, like vegetables and nuts. They should avoid deep-fried snacks.”

While agreeing that a healthy diet is a solution to the problem of bulging waistlines, Musallami added, “I think schools should make physical education part of the curriculum. Children should do some kind of physical activity every day for 45 minutes during online classes.”

With this objective, Dr Sivakumar said, “To ensure the good health and well-being of its students, the board of Indian Schools in Oman has made ‘Happiness Curriculum’ part of the school programme for students of Grade 6 to 8 in Indian School Muscat. It will be disseminated to other sections as well. Comprehensive physical activity programmes across all Indian schools are in the pipeline.”

Physically active individuals are less likely to be depressed, they respond less dramatically to stressful situations and return to normal in much less time. “This is a fact of life. Exercise boosts your energy to do more and give more,” Balqees said.


(Text by Syed Fasiuddin)


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