Let’s stop talking about children and exercise.

Samantha Brennan suggests shifting the dialogue about childhood fitness from exercise to daily movement.


I think it’s time to reframe the discussion about children and physical fitness in light of the abysmal record of the under 15 set. While most commentators have chimed in in favour of unsupervised, active, outdoor play, rather than adding my voice to the chorus I want to suggest that we stop thinking about children and working out. Let’s ditch talk of exercise and start thinking about daily movement. While we’re at it let’s also think about the long-term health risks of inactivity and weigh those on the scale when we’re calculating how risky it is for our children to walk or ride their bikes to school.

The facts: Canada’s children just got a D-minus in physical fitness for the third year in a row. Just 9% of Canada’s children between the ages of 9 and 15 meet the recommended guideline of one hour of activity per day. Experts are blaming the dismal showing on the so-called “protection paradox.” Parents try to keep children safe by not allowing them to move freely between home and school, or engage in active, outdoor play, but as a result our children are leading increasingly sedentary lives.

Children_playing_road_hockey_in_VancouverIt’s ironic that in the era of treadmill desks, standing desks, and moving meetings in which we seem to pay a lot of attention to workplace movement, it’s children who might be sitting the most. “Sitting is the new smoking,” say public health experts and no one would allow their children to smoke. Yet children sit in desks for most of the day at school, they sit in front of screens a lot when they’re home, and then they are driven from place to place during which time they sit in cars. The total daily sedentary time for Canadian children and youth averages 8.6 hours (507 minutes for boys; 524 minutes for girls and sedentary time rises with increasing.

It’s also worth noting that the effect is gendered. Fewer girls than boys get the recommended amount of daily activity and the gender gap increases with age. In the United States, physical activity among girls drops dramatically during the teen years. Many girls don’t do any physical activity by the time they reach 18 or 19. More than half of black girls and a third of white girls do no regular leisure physical activity at 16 and 17. One study estimates that young women sit or lie down for 19 hours a day including long bouts of inactivity during school time. Researchers suggested that although they might be doing enough exercise, sitting the rest of the time still has serious health consequences.

You might also wonder how on earth this could be true. Children seem to be leading such busy lives. Some of the parenting discussions are about how busy and over scheduled our children’s days are. Looking at recent Canadian numbers it seems paradoxical the participation rates for children in some sports is up, but physical activity overall is down.​ How is that? Two factors seem to make a difference.

First, we’ve started to think of children’s physical activity as something separate from the rest of their lives. It’s what I’ve called elsewhere “compartmentalized exercise.” Children might, for example, play soccer but then do nothing else active the rest of the day.​ Children are young “sedentary athletes.”

Second, when children are at special classes aimed at physical activity, they aren’t as active as you might think. In “Dance Class: An ‘Activity’ That Isn’t Very Active,” K.J. Dell Antonia reports on research that shows that, overall, the level of physical activity in children’s and teenagers’ dance classes is surprisingly low. On average, students spend only about one-third of their class time in moderate to vigorous physical activity. But that shouldn’t be so shocking. Think about sports training. A lot of time is spent learning new techniques and listening to instructors, watching demonstrations and waiting your turn.

Young children at least are getting some sports participation, as in for example weekly dance classes or soccer games, but they’re lacking everyday movement. Children may have soccer once or twice or even three times a week but that’s nowhere near enough activity if they sit for the rest of the day. So my suggestion is that we stop talking about exercise, fitness, and working out. That’s not really the issue. The main issue is all of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles: adults, children, teenagers, athletes, and non-athletes alike. We need to walk more and sit less. For those of us unable to walk (perhaps we use a wheelchair), we need to move more in other ways. There’s no weekly class you can go to for that.


Samantha Brennan is a Professor in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at Western University. @SamJaneB.


  1. […] written about this before on other blogs. See Let’s stop talking about childhood exercise over the Impact Ethics […]

  2. Keep your eyes peeled for a study from my university Appalachian state! They are doing a study on pediatricians actually prescribing “outdoor play”! I’m curious to see what variables they are measuring, but I think the idea is in the right direction

  3. Reblogged this on where we are and commented:
    We need to be mindful of how we frame the discussion of physical activity (play?) of children. I think this author hits the nail on the head when she says that one of the contributing factors to our children’s sedentary lifestyles is our fear culture – or as she puts it the “protection paradox.”

  4. This is a great article! While I personally like to exercise doing workout routines, jogging, weights, etc., I still think it’s so important to focus on living an active lifestyle rather than pushing exercise on anyone, especially children. There are so many ways for kids and adults to move their bodies that may not be labeled as “exercise”, a leisurely bike ride, household chores, gardening, dancing in the living room, playing outside. Heck, maybe parents should play with outside with their kids more, if they don’t already and can free up a few extra minutes! It’s healthy for the body AND mind to move more, no matter what the movement is!

  5. Such a relevant issue. And the trend isn’t just in Canada but it is sweeping in many developing countries as well. Health promotion really needs to be around increasing involvement of children in daily home activities even if it’s as simple as walking down to the market to get groceries, or helping around with easy house cleaning etc.! Hopefully, this becomes a priority issue in the coming times!! Cheers :D

  6. Reblogged this on coastal holistic care and commented:
    feeling this. with all the shit about “childhood obesity” and knowing that i was a kid who hated sports, this speaks to me. (more critiques on the use of the “obesity epidemic” garbage).

  7. I am in agreement with you! we need to refocus our energy on this topic!

  8. andijsinger · · Reply

    Super important. I was sedentary and overweight until I was 17.

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