There is lots to chew on in this year’s report on Canada’s sedentary kids. Only five per cent of children get enough daily physical activity, pretty much all of them over the age of five. The reasons are varied and complicated, but one telling finding is the very idea of walking to school has become a quaint anachronism.
Combine that with the magnetic hold electronic devices such as smartphones and computers have over young people, and it is clear why the lack of activity poses an abiding risk to health. Chronic disease among youth, most notably Type 2 diabetes, has risen alarmingly in the last decades along with the rate of overweight and obese children (31 per cent of Canadian children; Manitoba’s numbers have historically exceeded the national average).
The latest report card published by Active Healthy Kids Canada compares this country internationally and finds Canadian children aren’t engaged in free play nearly enough and the yen for organized sports falls off in teenaged years. The best grade the country mustered in the survey was a B-plus, for how the community and its infrastructure contribute to encouraging physical activity in children. That’s largely due to the fact Canadian kids have a playground or arena within easy access.
The very young manage to get the recommended 180 minutes of physical activity in each day. Older children are more likely to be spending free time in front of the screen. Television has lost its shine, but children and youth are playing games and watching their shows on the computer or dwelling in social sharing sites on their phones.
Canadian parents faithfully sign their children up for organized sports, but the sedentary trend has overwhelmed the good in that — and a lot of time in many of these sports is spent sitting on the bench or standing around. That’s because the daily routines of children usually don’t include walking to school or other physical activities. Only 24 per cent of kids walk or cycle to school; 62 per cent are driven.
That is in stark contrast to Finland, where about 80 per cent of kids in grades 4 to 6 and 57 per cent in grades 7 to 9 walk or cycle. The telling difference is the Finns see a walk of up to three kilometres as perfectly doable for a child. Canadian parents see 1.6 km as an acceptable distance.
The report says convenience has become the enemy of physical activity. There’s little wonder in that: Two-thirds of families are financially supported by mom and dad working and it’s easier to get the day started by driving the kids to daycare or school on the way to the job. The pattern holds for after-school activities.
There is very little free play going on in the day of children now. The reflex to sit at home and stare at the screen is a common substitute for social engagement.
That builds habits early in a child’s life. The survey indicates when children become teenagers, when they fall out of love with the idea of hitting the ice or soccer field, it is a losing proposition to get them to walk anywhere as a matter of course.
The parents surveyed overwhelmingly expressed exasperation with the sedentary habits of their kids, noting they themselves always walked to school.
The reports’ writers suggest restricting the time children and youth can sit in front of their screens. That can encourage them to go outside and play. Some research has shown it can contribute to weight loss, too, because sitting in front of the computer often means snacking.
Routine, and parental expectations, laid down early in a child’s life can set patterns.
It’s tough to fight generational trends and the allure of technology makes for a potent adversary. Parents are the first role models and are most influential when children are young. Adults who are active themselves and lay down house rules early for time spent sitting in awe of the latest electronic distraction will have an easier time raising children who see the value in getting a bit of exercise. Treating the healthful habits of a former generation like so much nostalgia is a good way to set children up for chronic disease and a shortened life.
» A version of this editorial ran recently in the Winnipeg Free Press.