When it comes to talking about physical activity among children and youth, Dr. Mark Tremblay doesn’t sugar coat it for parents, politicians, educators and other health-related professionals who play an active role in kids’ health.
“We’re failing,” Tremblay says matter-of-factly, echoing the findings published in the most recent report card from Active Healthy Kids Canada, a non-profit organization with which he serves as chief scientific officer.
The report, which found 46 per cent of Canadian children ages six to 11 get three hours or less of unstructured physical activity each week, handed out a grade of F for the category of active play and leisure.
To turn the tide on what many believe is a childhood inactivity crisis, Tremblay, who is the director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, offers a simple suggestion: less screen time and more hours spent outside.
“We have the world’s biggest playground here in Canada, and it’s free,” he says. “Yet we tend not to (go outside) because it’s inconvenient, makes our clothes dirty … grass stains are a thing of the past.”
Noting only seven per cent of children and youth meet the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day, Tremblay says parents can assist their kids by, for instance, not driving them everywhere, instead making them walk to school or the store, and having them shovel the snow in the winter.
He suggests even taking away the remote and making them operate the television the old fashioned way “just to reintroduce that sort of incidental movement.”
“We’ve got to challenge the status quo and do things substantially different,” he adds.
Tremblay says Canada is struggling to tackle the inactivity crisis not because of a lack of political will, but because decision and policy makers don’t fully understand the breadth of the problem.
This, he suggests, is due to the lack of accurate, measurable data that is being collected.
Instead, government policy and spending decisions are being made with the best information available, which Tremblay says is often based on self reporting measures that simply aren’t accurate enough.
“The problem is that people have limited ability to recall, and when they do, they tend to exaggerate the good and diminish the bad,” he explains, noting most parents tend to overestimate their child’s physical activity levels.
Tremblay says the government and various health-related organizations need to “up the ante a little bit” to ensure decision makers are being given information that paints a clear picture of the problem.
That means recording data from direct monitoring devices like a pedometer instead of trusting someone to tell you how many steps they’ve taken, or partnering with universities and research institutes to use more sophisticated resources like an accelerator, which can record second-by-second movements of a subject over a period of a weeks and provide hundreds of thousands of data points.
Tremblay would also like to see schools become part of the solution, suggesting an assessment tool could be devised to test students on their physical aptitude, similar to the EQAO testing students take for mathematics and literacy.
“You’ve got to measure well to inform policy,” he adds.
Tremblay spoke Wednesday morning at the Golf and Country Club in Stratford, the last of three speaking engagements he made in Perth and Huron counties last week organized by the Perth District Health Unit and sponsored by Huron-Perth in motion.
Katherine Horst, a health promoter with the PDHU, says bringing Tremblay to the area was hopefully a good wake up call for anyone who is involved with children’s health.
“There is this perception, even with adults, that we’re more active than we really are,” she notes, adding the presentations were not meant to point the finger at any one group, but to remind everyone of the responsibility they all share.