Physical inactivity of Canadian kids blamed on 'culture of convenience'

Canada’s "culture of convenience" means children and youth sit too much and move too little, in gym class, on the playground, and while travelling to and from school, according to a new global comparison.

Tuesday’s report, "Is Canada in the running?," from Active Healthy Kids Canada grades kids from 15 countries on their physical activity levels in various areas. Findings for Canada, followed by other countries' grades, include:

D– for overall physical activity (Mozambique and New Zealand lead with a B, and Scotland lags with an F).

C+ in organized sport participation (New Zealand leads with a B and Mozambique lags with an F).

B+ in community & the built environment, such as local availability of parks, pools, arenas, leagues and bike lanes (Australia leads with an A–, and Mexico and Mozambique lag with an F).

D in active transportation, such as how many kids walk or bike to school (Finland, Kenya, Mozambique and Nigeria lead with a B, and the United States lags with an F).

F in sedentary behaviour, like time camped in front of a TV or computer (Ghana and Kenya lead with a B, and Scotland, South Africa and Nigeria also received an F).

C+ in physical activity at school (England leads with an A– and Colombia lags with an F).

For overall physical activity, 84 per cent of children in Canada agedthree to four get the recommended 180 minutes of daily physical activity of any intensity. The level falls to seven per cent of kids aged five to 11 who meet the guideline for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity. Examples of moderate activities include walking quickly, skating and bike riding. A run, basketball and soccer are vigorous activities.

"Why are our children sitting more and moving less? The answer requires a hard look at our culture of convenience," the report’s authors said.

Children driven around too much, Canadian report suggests

For most Canadians, the socially acceptable walking distance is less than 1.6 kilometres, according to the group. In contrast, in Finland, different social norms pay off and 74 per cent of kids who live between one and three kilometres from school walk or bike to class.

Distance is the most common reason Canadian kids don’t walk or bike to get to and from school. About 62 per cent of parents say their five- to 17-year-olds are always driven to and from school, either by car, bus or transit.

Canadians seem to value doing more in less time, the report’s authors said, but this may be at odds with promotion of children’s health by engineering activity out of our lives.

"Physical activity is not something to check off on your list of things to do," report author Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer of Active Healthy Kids Canada, told reporters. "It's a way of life."

Among parents who still feel it's important to keep kids moving is Susan Gallello-Kucharski, who walks her children, Jack, 6, and Rachel, 3, to school with other mothers who spell each other off for the commute.

"I want to instill independence in my children," Gallello-Kucharski said of why she makes the time to walk. "I want them to feel safe and have the know-how to get to school."

The report’s authors also found Canadian parents tend to look to structured activities and schools for their kids to play soccer, attend dance recitals and participate in phys-ed. Yet in one study, only 24 per cent of kids got 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity in one session of soccer.

Kirsten Clayton has three children under eight years old, and also participates in the walks to school with Gallello-Kucharski and other parents.

"All three of them swim," said Clayton. "We’ve made a conscious decision to not overschedule them after school because they want to play. They play in the schoolyard for half an hour, an hour, after school. They just come home and play most nights."

In the report, 79 per cent of parents said they pay fees or equipment expenses to help kids to move. But only 37 per cent of parents said they often play actively with their children.

"It’s like weaving opportunities for movement and activity in the child’s day," said Carol Timmings, a mother of four children aged 16 to 27, and director of chronic disease and injury prevention at Toronto Public Health.

"I can remember back to those days when they were young and the thought of having to build in some organized physical activity into the day was almost overwhelming. Well, the good news is, there are lots of opportunities."

Be a role model, Timmings suggested. Go out and play in the yard, kick a ball around, walk, cycle, run and have fun.

The other change since Timmings's children were young is the growth in electronic gadgets. Turning off tech products regularly isn’t easy for many families.

"It’s like an enemy almost," Gallello-Kucharski said of iPads and Wiis. "It’s a lot more finagling we have to do as parents to encourage the natural activities of outdoor play. It’s a challenge."

Changes would require partnerships between parents, teachers, child-care providers, governments and community groups, the report’s authors said.

The costs of inaction include an increased risk of being overweight and obese, along with health risks associated with them. Being sedentary is also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease with impacts on circulation, blood pressure and blood sugar, Timmings said.

The report card was supported by the Lawson Foundation, RBC, the George Weston Foundation, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Loblaw Companies Limited, the MLSE Foundation, General Mills Canada, the Jays Care Foundation, Canadian Tire Active At School, and provincial and territorial governments.