TORONTO — Many Canadian kids plop themselves in front of a TV or computer screen after school, a trend that needs reversing to improve physical activity levels and overall health, a new report says.
The seventh annual Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card, released Tuesday, focuses on 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and says children and youth are getting “a mere 14 minutes” of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity out of a possible 180 minutes.
“We need to figure out how we can maybe get kids outdoors and active again in that time period where it is light out and there are people around, so issues related to safety and so on might be a little less in that window of opportunity than after supper,” said Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer of the organization and director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group.
Society has changed in the last couple of generations from one that was rich with after-school physical activity — for example, exploring the neighbourhood on the way home from school or going for bicycle rides — to one in which parents keep closer tabs on their children’s whereabouts and report more indoor screen time, he noted.
“Over 70 per cent say that the kids are watching TV or playing video games or whatever. And when we actually measure with accelerometry data from the Canadian Health Measures Survey we find only 14 minutes out of roughly 180 minutes in that window of opportunity where kids are actually engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity, so that remains perhaps an untapped opportunity.”
The report card gives an F for physical activity levels in Canada, citing a survey showing only nine per cent of boys and four per cent of girls meet new Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines calling for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. It also says children and youth are getting an average of six hours per day of screen time outside of school hours, and more than seven hours on weekend days.
The highest mark awarded is A- for proximity and availability to resources in the community. Ninety-three per cent of parents say public facilities and programs for physical activity and sports are available locally and 95 per cent say parks and outdoor spaces are nearby and available.
But getting kids to use them is another matter.
Elio Antunes, chief operating officer of ParticipAction, said reducing screen time and limiting it to two hours per day is key.
“By trying to have this report card focus in on the 3 to 6 p.m. — the after-school — time period we’re hoping that it can be a bit more tangible kind of area focus that we can mobilize stakeholders and families around. We’re moving, but we’re moving very slowly and we can’t afford to continue at this pace.”
Tremblay said the report encourages people to get outdoors where “you’re more likely to be moving and you’re less likely to be eating.”
Kids could be enrolled in sports or recreation activities, community groups or intramurals at school, or they could just play.
“We’re talking about quite a range of ages here so five- or six-year-olds, it could just be horsing around in the backyard or in the park or in the driveway or shooting hoops or playing catch in the park or anything like that, just being outside, and getting away from the couch,” Tremblay urged.
Jill Mitchell, an elementary school teacher who has daughters aged nine and 10, said certain youngsters that she teaches are getting enough exercise, but not all of them.
“I think some parents are afraid to let their kids go out and play on the street because it’s not necessarily as safe as it was a number of years ago, and so they have to put them in structured activities and some people don’t have the money to do that,” she said.
“And if they’re working families I think it’s harder to sort of co-ordinate that kind of activity.”
Her daughters are passionate about dancing, and her younger daughter also plays soccer.
But Mitchell, who spoke by telephone from the Gotta Dance studio in Toronto where her daughters take classes, said it’s not always easy for parents to get their kids to programs. She suggested it can help to buddy up and meet people in the community who have kids of similar ages.
“To get my kids here, I rely on other people, sometimes two,” she said.
“So you have to be able to reach out to people either at your school or in your community to help carpool — but it doesn’t even need to be to go to extracurricular. It just needs to be to have somebody supervising the kids to get them outside and to get them active.”
But the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. time period can be challenging, she noted, as parents are trying to get home from work and make dinner.
Tremblay said physical activity levels drop off dramatically entering the teen years. He said teens involved in supervised after-school activities are less likely to experiment with risky behaviours like drugs and alcohol. This age group is also being advised to spend more time outdoors.
“Whether it’s walking with your girlfriend or going for a bike ride or creating a pickup game in the park or shooting pucks at the hockey net in the driveway, whatever the case might be, the benefits of being outdoors far outweigh the liabilities.”