Canadians fatter, less fit than in 1981

Canadians of all ages have become substantially fatter and less fit over the last few decades, with all age groups packing on pounds while at the same time losing strength, endurance and flexibility, an important new survey has revealed.

Statistics Canada Health measures specialist Jennifer Patry-Parisien

Statistics Canada Health measures specialist Jennifer Patry-Parisien

TORONTO — Canadians of all ages have become substantially fatter and less fit over the last few decades, with all age groups packing on pounds while at the same time losing strength, endurance and flexibility, an important new survey has revealed.

The trend, most striking in children and young adults, raises the spectre of higher rates of chronic diseases — potentially starting at earlier ages. And unless significant change is achieved, future generations of Canadian seniors could face additional challenges in trying to live independently because of their lack of fitness, experts said.

“The children and youth of Canada are becoming taller but heavier, fatter, rounder, weaker and less flexible than they were a generation ago,” said Mark Tremblay, who led the effort to design and launch the Statistics Canada survey.

“If our younger cohorts are starting off much worse off than in the past, you know it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there are going to be serious challenges and problems in our future.”

Those problems include “an acceleration of all chronic diseases and the costs and loss of productivity associated with those,” said Tremblay, who is now director of healthy living and obesity research at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

The Canadian Health Measures Survey is the first comprehensive attempt to measure the fitness of the nation since 1981.

The two-year effort gathered a wealth of data on 5,000 Canadians aged six through 79 from across the country. In addition to filling in a lengthy questionnaire, participants were measured, weighed, and asked to provide blood and urine samples and perform standard physical tests designed to assess strength, flexibility and other key fitness indicators.

Over the next few years the data are expected to be mined for scores of analysis and scientific papers. If Wednesday’s preliminary release is any indication, the picture they paint won’t be a pretty one.

Nearly two-thirds of Canadian adults are overweight or obese and a quarter of children share that boat with them.

That’s a three-fold increase in childhood obesity and a 70 per cent increase in adult obesity since 1981, said Ian Janssen, a professor and researcher with the Centre for Obesity Research and Education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

A prominent Canadian obesity researcher said the figures point to a country in crisis.

“Well, if you look at those numbers I’d be very surprised to see what actually qualifies as a national crisis if this does not,” said Dr. Arya Sharma, chair of obesity studies at the University of Alberta and scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network.

Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the data tell the story of an epidemic that has been unfolding for some time.

“And we’re not winning,” he said from Ottawa.

“I guess if there’s a small positive note, it appears that from 2004 to the most recent survey the rate of obesity is similar. So maybe we’re starting to level off. But we’ve got a lot of work to get back to more reasonable rates of a couple of decades ago.”

It’s not just the fact that Canadians are fatter. There’s been a dramatic increase in the proportion of Canadians who carry abdominal fat as well. Carrying fat around the middle is much more damaging for one’s health than excess weight at the hips and buttocks.

“The information on the rates of abdominal obesity, particularly in older adults, is absolutely astonishing,” said Janssen, who specializes in this area of obesity research.

“When you look at the prevalence or percentage that have abdominal obesity, it’s two-thirds…. That’s unbelievable. That’s increased from 26 per cent in women in 1981 and 23 per cent in men in 1981. So we’re seeing bigger increases in abdominal obesity than in overall obesity.”

Tremblay said the findings confirm the perceptions of those involved in the field. “I think our worst fears have been validated — the fitness of the nation has declined dramatically in the last generation.”

Where some had argued that the increasing size and weight of Canadians meant they were becoming more muscle-bound, the study shows that isn’t the case.

“We’re becoming fatter, we’re not becoming stronger and more muscular. All indices of fatness are getting worse. So waist circumference, skin fold measurements, body mass index are all deteriorating, as is strength, flexibility as well.”

The survey shows the proportion of Canadians with dangerously large waists went to 21 per cent from five per cent among men, and to 31 per cent from six per cent among women.

The average waist circumference measurement for women increased 10 centimetres from 1981, Tremblay noted.

Among youth aged 15 to 19, the percentage whose waist circumference put them at an increased or high risk of health problems more than tripled.

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