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A runner photographed while exercising along Lake Ontario, Toronto January 19, 2011.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Half of Canadians think they get enough exercise. Chances are, they're wrong.

For the first time, federal researchers have used tracking technology to accurately monitor exactly how much physical activity Canadians get in a week.

The results are dismal. But they're also a far cry from the amount of exercise Canadians think they're getting.

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Only 15 per cent of Canadians achieve the recommended amount of exercise each week, 150 minutes, according to a landmark Statistics Canada report published Wednesday.

But when asked to report their own fitness levels in a previous Statscan Canada survey in 2009, more than 50 per cent of Canadians said they are at least moderately active. That would mean three hours of exercise classes a week or at least 210 minutes walking a week.

"There's a big disconnect there," said Rachel Colley, research analyst in the health analysis division of Statistics Canada who co-wrote the new report.

The new data are significant, and will likely play a key role in shaping future debates over how to tackle inactivity and obesity. The survey marks the first time Statistics Canada has been able to accurately determine the population's fitness levels. Study participants wore accelerometers, or devices that track the intensity and duration of physical activity, for up to one week.

"If there's any kind of bias … it kind of gets around that issue," Dr. Colley said.

Previous studies that have looked at fitness levels in Canada relied on "self-reported" data, or information supplied directly by Canadians.

As it turns out, we have been much too generous with ourselves.

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In the 2009 Statscan report, 27 per cent of Canadians said they were "active," which means walking an hour every day or jogging for 20 minutes every day, while 25 per cent said they were "moderately active."

But the new report reveals nearly half of Canadians don't get 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at least once a week. Only 15 per cent accumulate 150 minutes of exercise each week, enough to be considered "active."

Adults spend about 70 per cent of their waking hours, or 9.5 hours, sedentary, the new report found.

The results are similarly stark for children. Only 7 per cent of children get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at least six days a week, the recommended amount. About 62 per cent of their waking hours are spent sedentary, Statistics Canada said in the new report.

"I think people underestimate how sedentary they truly are," said Kelly Murumets, president and CEO of Participaction. "People need to think again about how active they are and more important, they need to think about how active their kids are."

Statistics Canada decided to undertake the difficult task of accurately tracking physical activity levels after noticing an odd trend in comparing reported activity and obesity rates.

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Despite the fact that the number of Canadians who are overweight or obese has risen steadily over the past few decades, self-reported physical activity rates have also climbed in recent years, Dr. Colley said.

"If that were indeed the case, then we probably wouldn't see such discouraging numbers with obesity that we are," she said.

Although few Canadians are getting the recommended amount of exercise, the new report does show that a majority of people are doing something active, even if it's only for a few minutes each week, Dr. Colley said.

She hopes the findings will be used to help develop workable strategies to encourage people to be physically active more or for longer periods.

"At least they're getting some [exercise]and I think that's … an empowering message for Canadians."

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