Are today's youth active enough?
A growing number of studies suggest that most kids are not getting the physical activity they need to maintain good health. But getting and keeping young people active is more complicated than just signing them up for soccer or dance classes. Here's why.
BY ROBIN SUMMERFIELD
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2012
jumps off the city bus
and checks the time.
It's 8 a.m. and she's just arrived at her school, Glenlawn
Collegiate. Classes don't start for another 30 minutes. That's just
enough time for the 17-year-old to squeeze in a short 15 or 20
minute run on a treadmill at the South YMCA-YWCA next door on
In minutes, she's going through her paces and working up a good
sweat. By 8:30 a.m., she's cleaned up, back in her school clothes
and ready to take on the day.
"I try to get a quick run in before school on most days," says
Stanicevic. "It just makes me feel energized."
Stanicevic's commitment to being active does not start and end
with jogging. Today is Tuesday, which means that after dinner
tonight she'll head back over to the Y to teach dance or soccer to
younger kids. On Thursday nights, basketball and gymnastics are
When she's not teaching classes, Stanicevic can be found inside
the gym, working her way from one weight machine to another,
concentrating on increasing muscle tone.
She doesn't stop there.
"Dance is a really big part of my life," Stanicevic says. The teen
took dance classes when she was young and taught herself how to
breakdance. She's also really into freestyle dance.
Clearly, Stanicevic is an active teen. When all her active time is
added up, she easily hits the minimum of 60 minutes of moderate
to vigorous activity a youth needs each day to maintain good
health. Indeed, on her most active days, she can hit 150 minutes.
Unfortunately, not all Canadian
youth can make the same claim. Most
aren't even close, a point made by
numerous studies. Active Healthy Kids
Canada, for example, reports that only
seven per cent of Canadian children
and youth (six to 19 years of age) meet
the recommended minimum activity
requirements. Meanwhile, 63 per cent
of Canadian children and youth spend
their free time after school and on
weekends being sedentary.
Closer to home in Manitoba, a
provincial government report notes that
23.7 per cent of young people between
the ages of 12 and 19 are overweight
or obese, compared to the national
average of 28.8 per cent. The report
also notes that Manitoba's youth simply
aren't getting enough exercise for proper
development and growth.
Concern about inactivity among
young people is growing.
"This is a very important issue,"
says Dr. Michael Routledge, the newly
appointed Chief Provincial Public
Health Officer for Manitoba. "We're
learning more about the multiple
benefits of physical activity, and the
risks from inactivity. Being physically
active is fundamental to our overall
health at both an individual and
That point is underscored in the
Active Healthy Kids Canada report. It
notes that physical activity contributes
to improved aerobic fitness and motor
skills. But being physically active is not
just about being fit and trim looking in
the here and now, it's also about longer
term health and wellness. As the report
notes, "Aerobic fitness in particular
has been linked to a decreased risk
for chronic diseases and metabolic
syndrome (the simultaneous occurrence
of several metabolic disorders, which
increase the risk of diabetes and
Physical activity can also make
you smarter. According to the report,
"physical activity levels have been
positively linked to cognitive function
during development in school-aged
children (aged 4 to 18).
Games and exercises that require
problem-solving are associated with
improvements in perceptual skills, IQ,
academic achievement, verbal tests,
mathematics tests and developmental
level. Sedentary children who begin
to partake in physical activity can
also benefit from enhanced cognitive
developments." Physical activity can
also increase self-esteem, "and children
and youth who are physically active
appear less likely to experience mental
health problems," the report says.
Yet many health officials around
the world believe inactivity has hit
pandemic proportions. Name a serious
health problem and in many cases it can
be linked to physical inactivity.
The nature of the problem was
hammered home just prior to the
Olympics in London when The Lancet,
a British Medical journal, published a
series of articles warning that the world
was in the midst of an inactivity crisis.
Among other things, the authors pointed
out that long-term inactivity leading
to heart disease, diabetes and cancer
causes about 10 per cent of deaths
worldwide. They also noted that as
many as eight out of 10 kids around the
globe between the ages of 13 and 15 do
not meet the standard of 60 minutes of
moderate to vigorous activity each day.
Health experts say it is important
to understand that inactivity isn't just
a problem for the individual. The
widespread ill-health that can be
attributed to lack of activity puts an
incredible and costly strain on health
services. If the alarming trend of youth
inactivity doesn't shift, Canada will
be one sick country, populated with
citizens riddled with health problems
such as heart disease, strokes, cancer
So, why are our young people
inactive? And, more importantly, what
can be done about it?
Active Healthy Kids Canada, the
country's leading youth activity
advocacy group, says one of the main
contributors to the problem is a lack of
Indeed, a recent study produced
by the agency says that outdoor play
time has dropped 14 per cent in the
past decade. That may not seem like
much, but the study's authors say free
time is critical because it helps build a
lifelong love of being active as well as
improving a host of developmental and
social skills in young people.
"Unfortunately, the structure and
demands of modern Canadian life may
be engineering active play out of our
children's lives," the study's authors
wrote. "Perhaps in a misguided bid to
protect and direct them at all times,
Canadian kids have lost the freedom to
throw open the doors and go play."
Mark Tremblay, Director of the Healthy
Active Living and Obesity research group
at the Children's Hospital of Eastern
Ontario, and one of Canada's foremost
researchers on the effects on childhood
inactivity, says another major contributor
Multiple television screens, home
Internet access and computer video
games all encourage more daily screen
and couch time, says Tremblay. Busy
lives and bursting schedules cut into free
time that could be spent exercising or
playing, he adds.
These sedentary habits and the
reduction of free time are setting kids up
for long-term health problems, diseases
and, ultimately, a shortened life-span.
"The forces of society are very, very
powerful and provoke us to move
less," says Tremblay. Swiftly evolving
technology, including remote-control
devices that make it less necessary to
move around, are compounding the
physical inactivity crisis. "We're all
seduced by these things."
Routledge agrees that technology plays
a role in keeping people on the couch.
But he also says society as a whole needs
to take action to promote active lifestyles.
"We all need to contribute towards
creating the kinds of communities that
help people embrace daily physical
Among the areas Routledge would like
to see better addressed are our built urban
environments. Neighbourhood design
does not always lend itself to the use of
active transportation. Changes such
as bike lanes and reduced speed
limits can help create residential
communities that promote a safe
and active lifestyle.
Routledge says none of these
issues can be addressed overnight,
but he is encouraged by initiatives
such as a recent City of Winnipeg
motion to reduce speed limits to 40
kilometres an hour in residential areas.
Other initiatives have been launched
to promote activity among Manitoba's
youth. For example, the provincial
government acted in 2007 and 2008
to make physical education part of the
mandatory curriculum for kindergarten to
Grade 12 students.
Prior to that, in 2005, the province
launched Manitoba in motion as part
of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures
initiative, an all-party task force that asks
Manitobans to get moving. Manitoba in
motion, along with Winnipeg in motion,
support schools, workplaces and
community groups to increase
opportunities for physical
activity and decrease
barriers to participation.
To date, more than
600 schools across the
province have registered for
the healthy schools initiative.
Participating schools have set a
goal of getting their student populations to
get at least 30 minutes of physical activity
during their school day. Special events,
activity breaks and
other programs are
all part of the plan.
the Chair of
Her job is
programs and help groups, schools,
organizations and companies introduce
or increase physical activity within their
structure or schedule.
"The focus is on being physically active
to improve and maintain health and wellbeing
and to prevent chronic disease."
But while the goal - to get young
people moving - is simple, the path
to change is not an easy one. As she
explains, people's lives are busy and
chaotic, so she encourages parents and
kids to prioritize physical activity as a key
part of their day in any way they can.
Parents can help instill a lifelong love
of physical activity in their children by
being active themselves, Betteridge says.
As children grow older, they start to look
on their peers as role models. If parents
are lucky (or strategic), their kids will
have friends, who she calls "champions"
of physical activity in the community, who lead their peers to move and play
more. Luckier still, parents will raise their
own physical activity champions.
Betteridge says the key for parents is
to be creative about promoting activity.
Think hula hooping, dancing in the living
room, BMXing, slack-lining, shooting
hoops and playing Frisbee, she says.
Visit local community centres to discover
what programs are offered in your
neighbourhood. Brainstorm ideas with
your kids on a family activity white board
and then let everyone take a turn picking
what activity you'll all do together, she
"We can turn it around. But (parents)
can't do it alone. We have to do it as
a community. We have to make good
decisions (about how we build our lives
Betteridge is also a big believer in
leading by example. The former personal
trainer used to spend many hours working
out in the gym, an activity she is not as
keen on anymore, but has found other
physical activities that better fit her current
lifestyle. As a working mom with a toddler,
Betteridge tries to ride her bike to work
most days and has found some good
exercise videos that she enjoys, using
active transportation and home exercise as
her ways to stay physically active.
Meanwhile, educators, parents and
experts grapple with how to explain the
importance of physical activity to young
people. Just how to communicate with
youth and deliver the message about
the health risks associated with physical
inactivity is a challenge, says Routledge.
Telling a young person that if they don't
get active now, they may face serious
health problems two or more decades later
may not get through, he says.
Real change is going to require a shift
in societal attitudes away from blaming
inactive individuals, and towards creating
built environments that promote physical
activity, Routledge says.
The public policy changes that have
occurred over the past few decades with
respect to tobacco provide a helpful
template for how to address physical
inactivity. Tobacco use went out of favour
as the public recognized the connection
between smoking and disease, and pushed
for actions that steered people away from
smoking, such as no smoking policies for
restaurants and public places. The same
thing has to happen now with our efforts
towards supporting people to be more
physically active, Routledge suggests.
In addition, an approach that promotes
improved self-esteem through physical
activity may also prove helpful.
Stanicevic is a case in point. Although
she is active now, that wasn't always the
case. "I had always been a little bit chubby
throughout childhood," she explains. "Not
overweight, but chubby."
In 2009 as she entered Grade 9,
Stanicevic started feeling a little insecure
about her body and not super confident in
her own skin. So she decided to make a
change. She cut all her meals in half and
made sweets and desserts a treat rather
than a daily occurrence. She ate more
fruits and vegetables. She started moving
more and eating less. Getting exercise, in whatever form, became a daily habit she grew
to love. As the number on the scale dropped,
Stanicevic was energized. "Once I started, I really
didn't want to stop," she says.
And parents do have a role to play in
encouraging physical activity, says April
Limosinero. "(Adults) just can't say it, they have to
do it, too," says the 17-year-old.
Limosinero's dad, Henry, is the perfect
example. Twice a week during the school year,
father and daughter play badminton inside the
Maples Collegiate gymnasium. "We're buddies in
badminton," she says.
Winnipeg teen Patricia Polden also thinks
there's an easy way to motivate kids. Her advice to
parents: "Try to do things with them and not just
tell them what to do."
Walk, play and get moving with your kids, says
Polden, who loves to dance, run track, walk and
work out at the gym to keep active.
Polden also believes there's a big barrier for
many kids wanting to get active: organized sports
are very expensive and many families can't
afford to pay the fees. "If (the government) could
subsidize more programs, I think that would help
people out a lot," she says.
Stanicevic, Polden and Limosinero are examples
of physically active teens, and researchers have
already learned a lot from their demographic.
But understanding inactive and sedentary
children and youth is also very important,
Tremblay and his team at HALO are in the midst
of a major study about sedentary youth. They
want to understand cardio-metabolic reaction of
sedentary behaviour, like sitting for long stretches.
The team wants to know how small movements,
like standing up after lengthy periods of inactivity,
act at a metabolic level in the body. It's all part
of the bigger picture of understanding physical
inactivity and sedentary behaviour in kids, he says.
The team hopes to have their manuscripts ready for
peer review by Christmas.
The study is a significant shift in how Tremblay
approaches the issue of childhood obesity. "We
can't continue to just harp on getting more
active, so we're also trying to reduce sedentary
For Winnipeg teen Helena Stanicevic, sedentary
behaviour is not part of her routine. Other kids can
learn from her success. Her advice is direct. "Do
what you love and be what you want to be," she
says. "And don't stop. Just keep going and don't let
anyone tear you down."
Robin Summerfield is a Winnipeg writer.
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.
Read the September / October 2012 issue of Wave