TORONTO — While many Canadian kids play sports and have access to parks and playgrounds, a new report has given them a D minus grade when it comes to physical activity targets.
For the first time, Active Healthy Kids Canada used its annual Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth to see how Canadians measured up to kids in 14 other countries.
Canada trailed near the back of the international pack for overall physical levels along with Australia, Ireland, and the U.S., while Scotland received an “F.”
Despite the presence of established policies, places and programs designed to help kids get moving, the report pointed to what was described as a “culture of convenience” to account for why many Canadian kids aren’t more active.
“It could be tempting to think that: ‘My kid plays soccer so he’s active enough,’ or: ‘My child gets what she needs at school.’ These things are important and they do count — however it’s not enough,” said ParticipAction president and CEO Elio Antunes.
“If we just thought twice about jumping in the car for trips of less than one kilometre or encourage our kids to go outside more often where they are naturally inclined to move more without even thinking about it, our kids would be more active overall.”
The report found that 84 per cent of Canadian three-to-four-year-olds met early years guidelines of at least 180 minutes of daily physical activity at any intensity. But it was a far more grim picture for older children, with only seven per cent of five- to 11-year-olds and four per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds in Canada meeting recommended guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily.
Walking quickly, skating and bike riding are examples of moderate activities, while running, basketball and soccer are examples of vigorous activities.
At the head of the class were Mozambique and New Zealand with each country assigned a “B” grade for overall physical activity levels.
New Zealand appears to have found success in offering opportunities for both organized activities and free play, with most kids spending an average of 78 per minutes daily on free play, the report found. Researchers in New Zealand also have earned worldwide attention after removing all playground rules at elementary schools to help get kids more active, said Active Healthy Kids Canada CEO Jennifer Cowie Bonne.
“Not only did the kids move more, but the administrators reported an immediate and surprising drop in bullying and injuries,” she told a news conference on Tuesday at the first-ever Global Summit on the Physical Activity of Children.
Canadian kids earned a failing grade due to time spent being idle. Canadian kids aged three to four spent 5.8 hours a day being sedentary. That number spiked to 7.6 hours for five- to 11-year-olds, while 12- to 17-year-olds spent 9.3 hours a day being sedentary.
Canada also trails in the category of active transportation, assigned a “D,” with the report revealing 62 per cent of parents said their five- to 17-year-olds were always driven to and from school. Meanwhile, Finland was lauded by Canadian officials for allowing the majority of kids to commute to school on their own power.
The report found that 74 per cent of kids in Finland living one to three kilometres from school bike or walk, while nearly all of those living one kilometre or closer do so. For most Canadians, the “socially acceptable” walking distance to school is less than 1.6 kilometres.
While lagging behind many of their international peers in key categories, Canada ranked among the leaders in well-developed facilities, spaces and programs for physical activity.
Canada placed third with a “C plus” for organized sport participation behind New Zealand and Australia, with 75 per cent of five- to 19-year-olds in Canada participating in organized physical activities or sport.
The results come despite findings that there are ample places for kids to break a sweat, with 95 per cent of Canadian parents reporting local availability of parks and outdoor spaces and 94 per cent reporting local availability of public facilities and programs for physical activity like pools, arenas and leagues.
The vast majority of Canadian students have regular access to a gym (95 per cent), playing fields (91 per cent) and areas with playground equipment (73 per cent) during school hours.
In general, low- to middle-income nations as well as countries with less physical infrastructure tended to be more physically active overall, noted Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer of Active Healthy Kids Canada.
He said the report also caused researchers to question whether play places need to be “CSA-approved structures of plastic rubber, cement and steel” or whether kids should be spending more time playing in nature.
“When we look across the other countries, those that are excelling have done that,” Tremblay said, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. “It’s either inherent in the way they live, or they’ve been able to allow that to happen and the interaction between nature and the outdoors to just occur organically — whereas it’s anything but organic in our society.”
Cowie Bonne said schools can provide opportunities for students to move more and sit less throughout the day with a mix of strategies for different time periods before, during and after classes, as well as during recess and lunch. School boards and municipalities also need to revisit policies, bylaws and playground rules that restrict opportunities for active outdoor play, she noted.
Traffic calming measures and crossing guards along school routes are among measures that can improve safety to help parents allow their children to walk, wheel and bike more, she added.
Other countries participating in the international comparison process include: Colombia, England, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa.
The report’s findings were published Tuesday in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health and are also available at the Active Healthy Kids Canada website.