One exercise physiologist says children in New Brunswick aren't learning the basic elements of play.

Dean Kriellaars is one of the leading experts in a movement called physical literacy.

"A child that has low physical literacy skills has low confidence to perform any activity," he said.

"They have a very limited number of movements they can do well. And all of those bundled together blocks them from participating in any physical activity."

Dean Kriellaars, exercise physiologist

Exercise physiologist Dean Kriellaars says low physical literacy among youth is a phenomenon across the country. (CBC)

This adds to the growing issue of increased screen time, and decreased free play outdoors. Across the province, the phenomenon is becoming apparent.

Joelle LeGresley sees it daily as a physical education teacher at Place des Jeunes in Bathurst. Many of the middle school students she teaches struggle through games of tag and capture the flag.

"When I say struggling, it's not just because they have weight issues. It's because they don't know how to move," said LeGresley.

Simple movements physical education teachers used to take for granted like jumping, skipping, and throwing are difficult for many of the students.

LeGresley says some are even failing gym class.

"She cannot do push-ups, she cannot jump, she can't do any sit-ups," said LeGresley, while going over a recent report card for a student.

"So it means that she's behind the other kids in physical literacy."

Poor physical literacy has long-lasting impacts

Not only does poor physical literacy block children from participating in sports and leading active lives, it also haunts them into adulthood.

"It's not just about sport. It's about being able to even participate in a world that's very cold and being able to not slip and fall," said Kriellaars.
Without basic movement skills to lunge and sidestep, an everyday obstacle like an icy sidewalk surface becomes a potential danger zone.

"If we don't act now in our education system, our recreation, our sports system, we're going to see ever-escalating costs and personal tragedies," said Kriellaars.

These costs, on top of New Brunswick's ever-growing debt, could be crippling.

Kriellaars says some studies estimate the cost of inactivity, coupled with smoking and obesity, will double by 2025.

Currently, New Brunswick faces a $12-billion debt and what some have called an obesity crisis.

"It will be costing the province more if it doesn't change," says Bathurst physiotherapist Marco Chiasson.

Exercise is the 'cheapest, safest drug'

Chiasson runs a busy practice in the northern New Brunswick community. His business peaks in the winter due to car accidents and slips and falls, some of which he says are preventable.

"Exercise is ... the new drug. It's the cheapest, safest drug there is and you have to move," said Chiasson.

Regular exercise can ward off obesity and disease, but Chiasson explains it also gives his patients a better awareness of their body.

"Pain is a result of a dysfunction, so when people don't move, they get stiff, they get weak. But they don't necessarily have pain. So they don't know what's going on in their body," he said.

When small injuries become chronic issues and are no longer treatable by Chiasson, the burden on the health care system escalates, especially if the patient requires a hospital stay.

Focus on prevention

General practitioner Linda Dalpé has become frustrated with the lack of physical literacy she has encountered in the province. After years of administering treatment, she has switched her focus to prevention. Dalpé is on a leave of absence from her job at the hospital in Caraquet in order to improve the health of her community.

"Prevention is always the cheapest option in the long run, " she said.

"I think there's a lot of stuff that's been documented, a lot of policies, a lot of tools online and on paper. There's a lot of funding opportunities, but these are all things that are out there, but they need a lot of community involvement, a lot of volunteering."

Dalpé is willing to provide the manpower to fuel such initiatives. Last year, she lobbied both municipal and provincial governments to fund an outdoor gym, now located along Caraquet's walking trail.

She now works with the town's outdoor centre, Club Plein Air, to get young families moving. The club provides cross-country ski and snowshoe trails, and ice surfaces at low cost to citizens.

Dalpé hopes this more structured play will help local children learn physical literacy skills, just like she did when she was a girl.

"During this playtime outside, we would get better at these skills, whereas kids now are more inside and they get better at other cognitive skills which make them more sedentary and at risk for obesity."