Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute.
The kids are not all right. On Tuesday, Active Healthy Kids Canada released its annual Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, and our kids’ D- clearly isn’t something parents should brag about. In fact, of the 14 countries evaluated, only children in Scotland scored lower.
What can we do about this idleness? According to a survey conducted on behalf of Active Healthy Kids Canada, parents overwhelmingly think schools are dropping the ball: “[Eighty-two] per cent of parents agree that the education system should place more importance on providing quality PE.”
Unfortunately, even if implemented, physical education is not likely to be the answer, however, especially given that much of the time in organized PE is spent getting changed, setting up, hearing the rules and waiting your turn. Illustrating this phenomenon, one study found that adding a staggering 200 minutes of weekly school-based PE only increased participating kids’ total weekly vigorous activity by eight minutes. (To be fair, these were self-reported data and not objectively measured minutes.)
According to another study out of England, this time where exercise was measured using accelerometers, researchers found no statistical differences in the weekly physical activity levels of children going to a school providing nine hours of weekly PE and those of children going to a school with just 1.8 hours of weekly PE.
PE classes aren’t the answer in the fight against childhood obesity, either. A meta-analysis conducted by Canadian physician Kevin Harris and colleagues, which included data from 18 studies and involved more than 18,000 children, looking at whether or not school-based PE programs improved participants’ weights, concluded quite bluntly that they did not.
All of this leads me to note that our schools probably aren’t the ones failing to get our kids moving – we are, as parents. Sure, many of us enroll our children in after-school soccer and hockey. Yes, we’re putting our kids in swimming lessons and dance classes. But can we really call them active, healthy kids if their only activities are short bursts of prescribed and regimented movement?
The questions we should be asking: Are we cultivating healthy, active kids or are we just kidding ourselves? If we’re concerned about our children’s health and worried about their screen and sedentary times, are we setting the right example by decreasing our own screen and sedentary times? And, perhaps most importantly, are we actually playing with our children?
The world has changed. It may be true that when we were kids we didn’t need encouragement to go outside and play. But when we were kids, the alternatives weren’t texting our friends, surfing the Internet or watching one of hundreds of television or movie channels. When we were kids, the alternative was staying home with our parents and maybe being told to clean our rooms.
We need to stop wishing for a past that will never return and overestimating the value of organized activities, when the real answer may lie closer to home. Kids, like adults, prefer to spend their precious free moments doing what’s most enjoyable. Let’s make exercise more fun and do it together as a family. While a device may be more appealing to your children than heading out alone to the yard, having an engaged parent to play with might well inspire them to get off the couch.
If you want your kids’ physical activity grades to go up, consider doing the tutoring yourself.