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Why it’s time to legislate physical activity for our kids Add to ...

Today’s kids are not active enough. And they are becoming less active every year. Apparently this is a concern.

I say “apparently” because after years of discussion and debate about how to get kids active, we are still losing the battle. The data presented in the 2014 Active Healthy Kids Canada report card tells us as much. According to the latest report, only 7 per cent of Canadian kids ages five to 11 years are active enough to meet Canada’s basic daily physical-activity guidelines.

The reasons for our failure to reverse the inactivity trend are myriad: the perception of unsafe streets, the allure of computer screens, registration costs for youth sports, and access to programs, to name a few.

Where do we turn now?

One thing that we know for certain: Telling the kids to “just go outside and play” doesn’t work. We need to stop dragging out that blithe statement. It completely fails to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, and it’s not getting us anywhere.

If we are serious about getting kids active, the first step is to recognize what Brazilian public-health researcher Pedro Hallal stated in his 2012 commentary in The Lancet: We need to make physical activity a public-health priority.

But what does that mean? And what does that look like?

History shows us how it works. Successful public-health campaigns are large-scale and comprehensive. With polio, mumps and measles, we did something big. We vaccinated, saved tens of thousands of lives, essentially eradicated these illnesses and no doubt changed the course of human history in ways we can never measure.

In other words, we mandated a preventive cure. We didn’t make it optional for people.

In today’s context of video games and bubble-wrapped children, if we are truly serious about getting kids active, we basically need to legislate physical activity and provide the resources to support it.

That probably sounds draconian and frightening to many. Please take a moment to think about it.

Educators, health practitioners and governments can’t control whether or not kids choose to engage in unstructured free play. Nor can they control whether or not parents do the things necessary to ensure their kids are active in their spare time. But there is one place where, as a society, we can make a big impact.

First and foremost, we can guarantee quality physical education in schools. We can mandate it. Just as we currently mandate math. For all grade levels and for the entire school year. Over the past two decades, PE has practically disappeared from school curricula, and we need to change that.

School sports and physical education are anathema to many. But so is math, and we still teach math in schools. Are we ready to stop teaching math just because kids don’t like algebra or they struggle with fractions? Or because their parents have decided that their children are destined to be poets and not engineers?

Quality physical education is not a great mystery. We know how to do it. Some corners of Canada are already doing it very well.

The P4A school sports program in Prince Albert, Sask., has thousands of children in Grades 4 to 8 learning and playing different sports every year. P4A does it through efficient cost-sharing between schools and inclusive, “no cuts” policies that give all kids the opportunity to play.

St. Patrick’s Elementary School in Victoria has comprehensive activity programming that seamlessly blends year-round PE classes for all grades, daily physical activity (DPA) breaks, lunchtime intramural sports and after-school seasonal sports teams where no one is cut. All of it is overseen by a dedicated PE specialist who keeps all of the 350 kids from kindergarten to Grade 7 hopping – and running, jumping, kicking, throwing and catching – all year long.

Again, it can be done. It just takes planning and political will. The question is, are we serious?

We know that quality physical education costs money. However, medical treatment for heart disease, cancer and diabetes also costs money. Big money. We’re talking billions.

According to the Health Council of Canada, public and private health-care spending in 2012 was around $207-billion. The Canadian Institute for Health Information projected that costs would exceed $211-billion for 2013, or $5,988 per person.

It’s tempting to think that a small portion of these sums, spent on quality school PE programs, could do much to increase physical activity among our children and to curb future health-care spending. Pay now, save later.

Are we serious about getting kids active? Then part of the solution is to address the issue as we have addressed other public-health crises in the past. We need to make physical activity a public-health priority. And then we need to create comprehensive programs that serve every child in Canada, regardless of family income, parenting or geography.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Jim Grove is a senior contributing editor at Active for Life, a not-for-profit initiative committed to helping parents raise healthy, happy kids who are physically literate. He is a consulting editor to national sports organizations on physical literacy and long-term athlete development. He holds a degree in education and certification as a youth soccer coach. Married with three children, he has 15 years experience coaching children and youth ages five to 18. Find Active for Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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