No school recess. No organized sports. No running with friends in the park.
Staying at home became a necessity through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – urged by both Canadian public health officials and politicians – but has had a lasting impact on the physical health of children.
Only 39 per cent of children and teenagers met national physical activity guidelines of an hour of moderate to vigorous activity a day – and that was before the lockdown, according to a report released Wednesday that gives kids a D+ for physical activity.
A secondary survey of almost 1,500 parents in April by ParticipACTION, a non-profit dedicated to promoting healthy living and physical fitness, found that children and teens have since had lower physical activity levels, less outside time, higher sedentary behaviour and more sleep. Fewer than 5 per cent of children and 0.8 per cent of teens were getting the right amount of physical activity, sleep and sedentary time during the COVID-19 restrictions. This is compared with 15 per cent of children and teens combined prior to the pandemic.
“It’s just all gone in the wrong direction,” said Mark Tremblay, the report’s chief scientific officer and a senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. “The challenge now is to not only improve the report card grades, but also regain the ground lost since the pandemic restrictions.”
It’s not all bad news, though. For all the sluggishness, there’s also a growing movement among families to get outside for bike rides, walks and runs now that the weather has turned. The report found that parents who are physically active tend to have children that follow.
“When I see the people out there, they’re having a lot of fun. They’re not necessarily athletes and I don’t know if they’re doing it for fitness. They’re doing it to try and stay sane,” Dr. Tremblay said. “But they are enjoying it -- and wouldn’t it be great if that became a new norm?”
Halifax parent Richard MacLellan pulled out a trampoline and bought a pop-up soccer net after he noticed a “dramatic drop” in the activity level of his children, who are ages 8 and 16. Both were avid soccer players.
“We’re pretty persistent in making sure that we’re doing something to get them out to play and get them off the screen,” he said. “I can’t replace teammates or normal coaches. So I try to be patient and encourage them.”
Still, it’s a struggle, and one that Amy Ma can attest to. The Montreal parent said her 18-year-old has taken the initiative to go out for bike rides by himself or with his dad. He’s also found an outdoor space for bouldering, a form of rock climbing. Her 14-year-old daughter, meanwhile, is trying her hand at online tae kwon do classes.
Ms. Ma said her youngest son, 12, has had a tougher time. He misses his indoor climbing gym lessons. Ms. Ma said it’s more difficult to force older children to be more active. “Part of me wishes they would move around a little bit more,” she said, adding that it has been difficult to get the two youngest to even go for short walks.
Jane Thornton, a sports medicine physician and researcher at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University, said the positive effects of physical activity and organized sports are well-documented, including greater self-esteem and confidence.
“Are we going to see long-term effects from this lockdown on kids’ physical health and mental health as a result of this?” Dr. Thornton asked.
Corinne McDermott watched her hockey-obsessed 11-year-old walk alone into the family’s Toronto backyard to officiate what turned into a solemn burial ceremony. He even engraved the tombstone that day in March: “RIP hockey – It was fun.”
He buried a hockey puck.
Riley’s school had already closed, but it was the loss of his beloved hockey season that hit the hardest. Along with the season’s suspension went the young boy's greatest drive for daily physical activity.
“As the pandemic has dragged on,” Ms. McDermott said, “it’s been tougher to find the motivation to practise, with no teammates to have fun with or goals to work toward.”
The family, however, has been building in fitness during their day. Ms. McDermott said her 14-year-old daughter has found fitness videos she enjoys, and she and her husband have never been fitter as they try to set an example for their children. Even Riley, buoyed by better weather, is outside on his bicycle or scooter.
Just the other day, Ms. McDermott noticed the squirrels were trying to dig up the buried puck. A hopeful sign, she said.
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