Your Health

Making the grade

Active children are ready to learn

Active children are ready to learn
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Making time

BY KRISTINE HAYWARD
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Fall 2009

Is your child ready to learn? Did you know that supporting our children to be physically active can help them learn and improve their academic performance?

The 2009 Active Healthy Kids Canada (AHKC) Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth summarizes current research on the activity levels of Canadian children and the role physical activity plays in preparing your children to learn and to do well in school. The report card also points out that there are many influences that have an impact on the activity level of Canadian children, including family, peers, schools and the neighbourhood they live in.

One of the key findings in the report card is that Canadian children and youth are not as physically active as they need to be to achieve optimal health benefits for normal growth and development. Canadian children and youth were given a letter grade "F" when it comes to the category of physical activity levels. There has definitely been progress in the last few years - an estimated 13 per cent of children and youth met the physical activity guidelines in 2007/08, up from only nine per cent in 2005/06. There is still a long way to go to make sure that all Canadian children are maximizing the benefits of being physically active!

Another important message highlighted in the report is the connection between physical activity and learning. Research supports that academic performance is improved by participating in regular physical activity. One key study links physical fitness and active living to achievement in math tests and reading, perceptual skills, IQ and academic readiness. Another study showed that physical activity helps to enhance memory and learning, promotes brain cell growth, and prompts the release of chemicals involved in learning.

The report card praises Manitoba for making physical education mandatory for all four years of high school - the only province to take such a positive step. The Grade 11 and 12 curriculum requires students to demonstrate they are engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least five days a week. Although these are very promising steps, our children and youth still have a lot of work to do to meet Canada's Physical Activity Guidelines both inside and outside of school.

As part of its 2009 assessment, AHKC created a Family Physical Activity category, which takes into account parental modeling, efforts parents make to ensure their child is active and parents' perceptions about their child's physical activity levels.

The report card praises parents for trying hard to facilitate physical activity opportunities for their kids. It also notes some disconnect between how active children actually are relative to what their parents believe. One regional study found that 88 per cent of parents think their children are active enough, while objective measures found that 87 per cent of children were not as active as they should be. As a result of this disconnect, the report card gives Family Physical Activity a letter grade of C+.

This data is supported by the findings from the 2005 in motion survey conducted in Manitoba, which reported that over 90 per cent of parents felt that their children were physically active, yet less than 10 per cent were actually meeting the guidelines.

The conflicting data obviously raises a few important questions for parents: How active is active? What are Canada's Physical Activity Guidelines for Children and Youth? And what can you do as a parent to support your children to be active?

The Public Health Agency of Canada has developed physical activity guidelines for children and youth that can be used as a benchmark to measure your child's physical activity level. Generally speaking, the guidelines suggest that children and youth increase their activity and decrease their time spent sitting. The guide recommends that children work towards a 90-minute goal: 60 minutes of moderate activity and 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day.

Achieving these guidelines can be challenging. The guidelines suggest a "go-slow" approach, increasing activity time by five-to-ten minute intervals every day until the guidelines are met. Activities should include a combination of moderate activities, such as walking or riding a bike, with more vigorous activities, such as running, swimming or playing hockey.

Finding time to increase activity may come from decreasing the time children are spending in front of computers and television screens. Research shows there is a significant relationship between increased media exposure and poor academic outcomes. The Canadian Paediatric Society suggests limiting screen time in front of a computer or television to a maximum of two hours a day.

Working with your children to add more physical activity to their day teaches them that physical activity is important for their physical, mental and emotional health and to improve their ability to learn.

Kristine Hayward is a co-ordinator with Winnipeg in motion, a partnership of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the City of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba.

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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