Screen time up, play time down

Too many Canadian kids, including tots under the age of five, are spending too much time glued to TV, computers and video games and it’ll take a concerted effort by parents, caregivers and others to get them moving more, say health experts and advocates.

Too many Canadian kids, including tots under the age of five, are spending too much time glued to TV, computers and video games and it’ll take a concerted effort by parents, caregivers and others to get them moving more, say health experts and advocates.

Their concerns were expressed Tuesday following the release of a report showing that most Canadian children aren’t meeting recommended physical activity guidelines.

In its sixth annual report card on physical activity for children and youth, Active Healthy Kids Canada assigned an “F” for physical activity levels among Canadian children for the fourth consecutive year.

The report revealed that fewer than half of preschoolers are engaging in daily physical activity, and only 12 per cent of Canadian children and youth are getting the 90 minutes recommended for daily physical activity. Meanwhile, the report found young people are continuing to devote considerable time to screen time, accumulating on average six hours per day on weekdays and more than seven hours on weekend days. While international guidelines vary, the report said the consensus is that kids aged one to five should participate in at least two hours of daily physical activity. However, it revealed not only are most preschoolers not getting in regular daily physical activity, the age demographic is spending significant time in front of the tube.

Despite recommendations kids under two have zero screen time, more than 90 per cent of kids begin watching TV before that age. Data from a national survey found 27 per cent of kids aged two to three and 22 per cent aged four to five were watching more than two hours of TV daily.

Steve Manske, professor of health studies and gerentology at the University of Waterloo, said he believes safety concerns and indoor play — where there isn’t the space to be as active as kids once where — is a “big part” of why younger kids are more sedentary.

Parents can incorporate activity through moments shared with their children, he suggested. For example, quiet time can be spent on a walk together as opposed to sitting watching a TV show.

“If you can use those times that you know you want to be bonding with the child as times that you’re also incorporating activity, I think that can be useful kind of modelling,” said Manske, who is also a senior scientist at the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact. “We know it’s not going to happen overnight, but we know that every little bit at the individual level can contribute towards the overall health of the population,” he added.

“As we get fit ourselves or more fit, than we’re able to have greater capacity to do more and it just feels natural to do the active thing rather than the sedentary thing.”

Increasingly sedentary behaviours are replacing what would have been active playtime for young children in the past, leading and contributing to the increase in kids being overweight and obese which is associated with other psychosocial and health problems, said Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer of Active Healthy Kids Canada. “This is very disturbing because it sets kids on a trajectory that the evidence shows it’s not one that we would desire,” he said.

“So young children that are overweight or obese or sedentary or inactive tend to follow those behaviour patterns later on in childhood and into adulthood, certainly much more so than kids that don’t demonstrate those behaviour patterns early on.”

National data indicate that 15.2 per cent of two-to-five-year-olds are overweight, and 6.3 per cent are obese.

In addition to limiting screen time, parents need to take a leadership role in promoting activity, said Kelly Murumets, president and CEO of ParticipAction, citing examples like walking kids to school, cycling to the store or parking in the furthest possible spot in the parking lot.

“In families where there are regular healthy habits, those kids end up being more likely to have those healthy habits throughout childhood and adulthood,” said Murumets, who said ParticipAction’s fall campaign will be focused on children and youth.

Murumets said it will take a joint effort by the public, private and non-profit sectors to combat the problem of childhood inactivity. “Unless all three sectors first of all acknowledge that we have a crisis in our country and acknowledge that this requires immediate action urgently now and then that we can take that action together . . . I think that the crisis will perpetuate. This report card this year needs to be an alarm bell for all of us right across the country to say we have a crisis and we need to get active.”

“If they spend part of their time at home, part of their time in a preschool, part of their time with a caregiver, I think the responsibility rests with each of those touchpoints to have an active element in the time that is spent with this child,” said McKay, a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia and director in the Centre of Hip Health and Mobility at Vancouver Coastal Health.

McKay said she believes the solution is looking at a whole spectrum of activities children could be doing throughout the day rather than just one specific thing, including playing structured games as well as other activities, like going for walks.

“If you can through combinations of activities find an hour every day when these kids are moving,” she said.

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