In order to achieve optimal health, it’s recommended that children should be active for at least 60 minutes each day, as suggested by the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth. However, research has shown that kids are actually getting less than half the percentage of recommended dose of physical activity, which can have a negative impact on their health later in life – especially their adult years. Children who don’t exercise not only run the risk of becoming overweight, which increases their likelihood of developing high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, but they also don’t strengthen their muscles and bones, which can lead to things like muscle atrophy and osteoporosis.
First, we’ll break down the numbers. While they haven’t changed much in the last decade, physical activity often tends to decrease as children get older. Boys are also likely to be much more active than girls. For example, boys between the ages of 6 and 11 get as much as 20% more regular physical activity than girls of the same age and average around 68 daily minutes of exercise per day (53 minutes for girls), while boys between 12 and 17 years of age get approximately 14% more exercise, averaging around 55 minutes of exercise per day (42 minutes for girls.)
There are many factors that can play into why children aren’t getting enough exercise, and it often starts with the fitness habits of the older adults in their lives. The more active a child’s parents or caregivers are, the more likely they’ll want to echo those same habits. According to Statistics Canada, for every hour an adult spends working out, a child will top that by as much as 15 minutes. This is called leading by example. Statistics Canada also says that another reason for a lack of physical activity in a child’s life has to do with the fact that kids, these days, are spending much more time indoors and in front of computer and television screens, or spending an excessive amount of time on their tablets or smartphones. This is known as sedentary behaviour. While it can sometimes be difficult to break that kind of habit, Dr. Ali Ghahary, a family physician from Vancouver, recommends that children get no more than 2 hours (per day) of recreational screen time, and limit sitting for extended periods. A child is also likely to get less sleep the longer they use these devices. In order to get the greatest health benefits, extended sedentary behaviour needs to be replaced with light physical activity, trading indoor time for outdoor time, as well as preserve sufficient sleep (9 to 11 hours per night for children aged 5 to 13, 8 to 10 hours per night for children aged 14 to 17.)
Kids are also less likely to want to exercise if it feels like it’s something that’s being forced upon them. If you tell a child they “have” to do something, more often than not they are likely to rebel against that and do the complete opposite. There are ways you can avoid this, though. First, it’s important to allow children to discover what they like. After-school activities can also be a great way to incorporate more physical activity into a child’s routine – such as basketball or soccer – as these kinds of activities are often things they look forward to doing as opposed to something that feels like a chore. Secondly, it’s also important to make exercise a fun activity that the entire family can get involved in. With summer right around the corner, Dr. Ali Ghahary suggests getting the entire family outdoors. You can go for a walk at your favourite park, take a small hike, or even go bike riding. For those who prefer to stay indoors, many community centres across Metro Vancouver also offer family-friendly exercise classes; swimming is also another great activity for the family to do together. The more fun the activity is, the more likely kids are to stay encouraged about keeping fit.