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.
It’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.