Your Health

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.

A growing number of studies suggest that most kids are not getting the physical activity they need to maintain good health.
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Active youth

Aerobic activity

The importance of sleep

Winnipeg in motion

Active Healthy Kids Canada

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2012

Helena Stanicevic 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 Fermor Avenue.


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 her specialty.

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 population level."

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 cardiovascular disease)."

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 and diabetes.

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 outdoor playtime.

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 is technology.

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 activity."

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, intra-murals, physical activity breaks and other programs are all part of the plan.

Deanna Betteridge is the Chair of Winnipeg in motion. Her job is to help develop and facilitate 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 suggests.

"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 and neighbourhoods)."

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, researchers believe.

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 behaviour."

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: September / October 2012

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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