The Toronto Star
January 20, 2011
By Andrea Gordon,
Family Issues Reporter
We already knew Canadians are fatter, weaker and less fit than 25 years ago.
Now we know why. New research that tracked the movements of 4,500 children and adults shows the hours we spend at a desk, on Facebook, watching Glee or reading a book far outnumber those spent kicking a soccer ball around or skipping to school.
The results, according to two Statistics Canada studies released Wednesday, have grave implications for our long-term health.
The reports found only 15 per cent of adults were getting the recommended minimum amount of exercise — 150 minutes a week — to keep them healthy.
On the flip side, they spent an average of 9.5 hours a day, or 69 per cent of their waking hours, sitting still.
The news was even more dire for the younger generation, with a dismal 7 per cent of kids ages 6 through 19 clocking the hour a day they need for healthy growth and development. They were inactive for 62 per cent of their day or 8.6 hours.
"This is the first time we've had an accurate assessment of the physical activity levels and behaviour of Canadians," said Mark Tremblay, co-author of the reports and director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario
"It raises the alarm bells even further. What's striking is how remarkably sedentary we are, even the kids."
The report also showed a clear difference between males and females: 17 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women met the guidelines while 9 per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls met the guidelines for children.
The findings are important because they rely on actual steps taken and the intensity of movement recorded by gadgets called accelerometers strapped to each of the participants.
Previous measurements relied on self-reported information from adults about their own and their children's levels of physical activity. And according to the survey, they overestimated.
"The news is perhaps more shocking and alarming than we would have hoped," says Guy Faulkner, associate professor of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto.
"The results are a tremendous public health concern."
That's because inactivity is directly related to being overweight or obese, and increases the risk of health problems like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and a range of other serious conditions. Research also shows regular exercise boosts mental health and helps kids learn.
Etobicoke mother Heather Caldarone had no idea there were guidelines about how much physical activity Canadian kids and adults should get.
But both she and her husband exercise regularly, so it has also become part of the daily routine for their sons, ages 9, 7 and 1.
"I think it rubs off on them," says Caldarone, 39, who runs and takes Pilates.
The older boys take karate and swimming lessons. They walk to school and go regularly to the park. In the summer, one plays on a local baseball team and the other plays soccer.
But she stays at home with the kids and says getting everyone to activities and keeping them off the videogames would be a lot tougher for parents working full-time.
The inactivity crisis demands more than just public education about the need to get moving, says Faulkner.
Most families recognize the problem, but they need urban planning that promotes walking and biking, after-school recreational programs and tax policies to make sports more affordable.
Tremblay says the survey is important because it measures both sides of the coin — lack of exercise and the exact amount of hours we are sedentary.
"Saying you have to be more active isn't going to work anymore," adds Brian Timmons, research director at the Children's Exercise and Nutrition Centre at McMaster Children's Hospital.
The message has to be cut down on screen time to free up time for more active pursuits.
The Canadian Health Measures Survey for 2007 to 2009 is considered more robust because it used a gadget called an accelerometer to measure how much participants move rather than relying on self-reported activity through questionnaires. All 4,500 study participants strapped the Actical accelerometer over their right hip on an elasticized belt and wore it during waking hours over seven days.
It measures intensity of movement by recording acceleration in all directions as well as steps taken per minute. Accelerometers are considered accurate assessments of physical activity, although they don't fully capture the energy expenditure of exercise that isn't step-based such as swimming, cycling or upper body movement like shovelling snow.
We're couch potatoes, we get it. And now we have guidelines that reflect our sedentary lives.
Health Canada has scaled back its 2002 recommendations on the amount of exercise needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle to match standards set by the World Health Organization and the United States Department of Health.
Kids aged 5 to 17 used to need 90 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous exercise, but as of next week, that changes to one hour, the benchmark used in the StatsCan studies. Adults up to age 65 required 30 to 60 minutes a day, but now they're off the hook if they get 150 minutes a week or 30 minutes a day over five days.
Critics say the change lowers the bar and reflects the poor physical state of most Canadians. But advocates says it underlines the fact that health benefits can be achieved at lower levels and the new targets are more attainable.