Children are naturally active

Children are naturally active

New activity standards for children call for less TV, more time on the run

Little children should be moving more and sitting less, according to new recommendations that are being billed as the first Canadian guidelines for physical activity and sedentary behaviour for children four and younger.

Little children should be moving more and sitting less, according to new recommendations that are being billed as the first Canadian guidelines for physical activity and sedentary behaviour for children four and younger.

Kids younger than two shouldn’t spend any time in front of a screen — be it a TV, a computer or a tablet, the guidelines say. And for children aged two to four, screen time should be limited to less than an hour a day.

“There’s no redeeming feature of screen time under the age of two,” says Mark Tremblay, who chaired the committee that drew up the guidelines and is lead author of two scientific papers which analyzed of about 40 published studies to come up with the two sets of guidelines.

“Don’t use screens as hypnotic elements to entertain them, to just pass time. It’s not advantageous for the healthy growth and development of a child to do that.”

Tremblay is also director of the Healthy Active Living Obesity research group at the Children’s Hospital for Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa. The guidelines were crafted by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and ParticipAction, with help from Tremblay’s group.

The guidelines suggest children under one should be allowed to partake in active play several times daily — including things like tummy time, reaching and grasping and crawling.

For kids aged one to four, parents should aim for three hours of activity a day. The activity can be any kind, Tremblay says, and doesn’t have to be rigorous.

Walking, crawling, playing — anything but sitting. By age five, children should be spending at least an hour a day in energetic play — activities like hopping, skipping and bike riding.

These bars may seem low. Many people have the notion that little kids are always on the go. But in fact, that isn’t the case, says Kelly Murumets, president and CEO of ParticipAction.

When allowed to play outside, children do become very active, Murumets says. But when they are indoors, particularly if there is a TV or computer screen around, that’s another matter.

“I don’t know what it is, I’m sure there’s some physiological explanation for this, but they become transfixed by the screen. And they will sit and be sedentary for much longer than you would expect toddlers’s DNA would allow,” she says.

The professional organization representing Canadian pediatricians is adding its support for the guidelines. The Canadian Pediatric Society is issuing its own guidance, which mirrors the recommendations on the amount of activity children should get daily.

The society’s guidelines also call on doctors to counsel families on the importance of encouraging children to be active and advise them on how to achieve that end.

Over the last quarter century, the obesity rate has nearly tripled among children and youth, the pediatrics society notes in its statement. As many as 26 per cent of kids between two and 17 years are now overweight or obese, and that number jumps to 41 per cent among First Nations children.

“We’re starting to see kids with health and obesity problems before they even start school,” says Dr. Claire LeBlanc, chair of the society’s committee on healthy active living and sports medicine.

“Parent and caregivers need to incorporate age-appropriate physical activity into their children’s day as young as possible.”

Tremblay says studies that monitor and evaluate what young children do find they are actually far more sedentary than most people would think.

“We measure them. Many people have measured them. It’s very clear — they’re not active most of the time. The vast majority of the time, in fact, they’re almost completely idle. And so we need to change that balance a little bit,” he says.

That said, on average, many kids may be close to hitting the mark when it comes to the activity targets.

“The direct measured literature actually shows that most kids in developed countries actually achieve more than two hours (a day),” Tremblay says.

“The minority, very few, actually achieve three hours. Given the drift that we’re seeing in obesity and some health problems, it’s reasonable to assume that perhaps we’re not where we want to be. But this is a reasonable target to get to.”

Where more progress needs to be made, though, is on the sedentary behaviour side. The guidance suggest children shouldn’t sit for more than an hour at a time, whether that’s in a stroller, high chair, or, ideally, even in a car seat.

Tremblay says the committee that drew up the recommendations suggests that long car rides should be broken up so that kids can be allowed to get out and move about once an hour.

Tremblay says frequent activity contributes to bone, motor skill and cognitive development and protects against the harms associated with excessive sedentary behaviour.

The gold standard

for youngsters

The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) is the principal body for physical activity, health and fitness research and personal training in Canada. Their charter states: “We are the Gold Standard of health and fitness professionals dedicated to getting Canadians active safely by providing the highest quality customized and specialized physical activity and fitness programs, guidance and advice based on extensive training and evidence-based research.”

Here are their suggested standards for activity for infants and young children


Infants (aged less than 1 year) should be physically active several times daily – particularly through interactive floor-based play.

Toddlers (aged 1–2 years) and preschoolers (aged 3–4 years) should accumulate at least180 minutes of physical activity at any intensity spread throughout the day, including:

l A variety of activities in different environments;

l Activities that develop movement skills;

Progression toward at least 60 minutes of energetic play by five years of age.

Being active as an infant means:

l Tummytime

l Reaching for or grasping balls or other toys

l Playing or rolling on the floor

l Crawling around the home

Being active as a toddler or preschooler means:

l Any activity that gets kids moving

l Climbing stairs and moving around the home

l Playing outside and exploring their environment

l Crawling, brisk walking, running or dancing

Children 5-11

The older children get, the more energetic play they need, such as hopping, jumping, skipping and bike riding.

For health benefits, children aged 5-11 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigourous-intensity physical activity daily.

This should include:

l Vigourous-intensity activities at least three days per week;

l Activities to strengthen muscle and bone at least three days per week.

How do you know if your child’s aerobic activity is moderate- or vigorous-intensity?

The US. Centres for Disease Control offers a rule of thumb: on a scale of 0 to 10, where sitting is a 0 and the highest level of activity is a 10, moderate-intensity activity is a 5 or 6.

When your son does moderate-intensity activity, his heart will beat faster than normal and he will breathe harder than normal. Vigorous-intensity activity is a level 7 or 8. When your son does vigorous-intensity activity, his heart will beat much faster than normal and he will breathe much harder than normal.

Another way to judge intensity is to think about the activity your child is doing and compare it to the average child. What amount of intensity would the average child use?

For example, when your daughter walks to school with friends, she’s probably doing moderate-intensity aerobic activity. But while she is at school, when she runs, or chases others by playing tag during recess, she’s probably doing vigorous-intensity activity.