Kids' physical activity: Canada gets a D minus

A new report gives Canada a D minus when it comes to kids' activity levels. Are structured schedules to blame for this inactive generation?

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Canada’s kids get a D minus when it comes to their activity levels, and Canada is clustered at the bottom of the pack compared with 14 other countries.

The Active Healthy Kids Canada report card was released yesterday, and Canada finished near the bottom along with Australia, Ireland and the U.S. (Scotland got an F). It seems that 95 percent of kids are not getting enough physical activity. This is the 10th year that Active Kids has done the assessment, but the first where it compared Canada to other countries.

Despite 95 percent of kids having access to playgrounds and outdoor activities, most kids over the age of five are not getting their one hour of “heart-pumping” activity per day. More than 80 percent of preschoolers get 180 minutes of daily physical activity, but only seven percent of five to 11-year olds and four percent of 12-17 year olds are getting one hour of moderate to vigorous activity.

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Experts are blaming our culture of convenience and structure on our kids’ (lack of) activity. Kids don’t just play outside anymore; they aren’t walking to and from school and their active time tends to be during organized sports. And while I like to think that my kids are getting a lot of activity out of their sports programs, there is probably more standing around and commuting time than there is running around time. As Gill Deacon said, half-jokingly, on CBC: “It’s an hour of driving for 17 minutes of actual play.”

“Our society values efficiency—we build more, do more and impose more structure—but perhaps this approach is somewhat misguided when it comes to getting kids more active,” says lead researcher Dr. Mark Tremblay, Chief Scientific Officer, Active Healthy Kids Canada, and Director of HALO. “A child’s day is so structured that there is no room for free play or walking or biking to school. Having plenty of local playgrounds is important, but what if they never get used? To increase daily physical activity levels for all kids, we must encourage a mix of opportunities, such as organized sport, active play and active transportation.”

The idea of spontaneous play, when kids just run around and get busy and tired by themselves is falling by the wayside. Whether it is because we are helicoptering our kids into inactivity; or forcing them to be part of an all-or-nothing organized sport, or because we over-schedule them with extra-curriculars of all kinds, or because we are all generally lazy and driving more, this report makes it clear that our kids are not getting enough activity.

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Even schools are denying our kids activity time. According to the report, 80 percent of schools have recess but not all of them provide it to all children.

As the report says: it is great that we have all these structured activities but if our kids aren’t also involved in spontaneous movement then they aren’t moving enough. I wonder if we are breeding a generation that is dependent on structured physical play instead of just getting out and moving around. Only 37 percent of parents said they played with their kids. If our kids don’t walk to do errands as a means of transportation, and they don’t play just for fun, what will they do as adults when there is less opportunity to plan active time?

Our kids are also very sedentary (I didn’t need a study to tell you that—you could just come over and watch my 14-year-old hang around.) The report also marked sedentary behaviours, which involve little physical movement and a low expenditure of energy. Canadian kids aged three to four spent 5.8 hours a day being sedentary. And it gets worse as kids get older—7.6 hours for five- to 11-year-olds, while 12- to 17-year-olds spent 9.3 hours a day being sedentary.

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New Zealand scored a “B” on the report, largely because of their emphasis on active play. Moxambique also got high grades for activity, but mostly because kids are involved in physical household chores.

I’m not going to kid myself and think that my kids would score too much higher on this report than the average. My younger two jump on our trampoline and play in our backyard alley, so there are some days that they are doing OK, but there are also many more where walking to the garage to get to the car is the most physical activity for any of us.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.  

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