Children aren't getting enough physical activity and move even less than their parents believe, a new report released today suggests.

Statistics Canada researchers measured the physical activity levels of children and recorded the times and days of the week the youngsters were sedentary.

The agency, which surveyed 878 children aged six to 11 and their families between 2007 and 2009, found that children spent more than 7½ hours a day being inactive.

As well, there was a big gap between how much and how intensely the children moved compared to what their parents believed.

On average, parents reported that their children engaged in nearly 105 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity such as running each day, but in fact, they were only participating in 63 minutes daily.

"If parents don't have a good handle on how much activity their kids are getting throughout the day, then they won't know if their child is someone who needs to be engaged in more activity," said author Rachel Colley of the agency's health analysis division in Ottawa.

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The disconnect between what parents think and what actually happens isn't unexpected, the researchers said. A parent might report an hour-long soccer game as moderate to vigorous activity time, but players don't run the whole game.

Sleeping time measured

Parents thought children sat in front of TV and video-game screens for an average of 2.5 hours. In fact, kids were sedentary for 7.6 hours, though screen time is just one aspect of sedentary behaviour, the authors noted.

In Dartmouth, N.S., father John Dalton makes an effort to see that his five-year-old son gets lots of activity after coming home from primary school, but he acknowledges it's a struggle for busy families.

"We just make an effort where possible road hockey wins out over television," Dalton said.

The difference between parent reports and measurements "has implications for surveillance of adherence to guidelines and for furthering the understanding of how these variables relate to health," Colley and her co-authors concluded.

Measurements showed children slept an average of 10.1 hours a day, about the same as the 9.7 hours parent thought.

Learn five simple ways to build physical activity into your day.

For the research, children wore small accelerometer devices over the right hip on an elasticized belt during their waking hours for seven days to measure their activity levels. The devices don't accurately reflect activities such as swimming, cycling and carrying loads.

The intensity of activity was divided into four categories:

  • Sedentary, such as sitting in a car or reclining.
  • Light, or walking less than 3.2 km/h to do light household cleaning or cooking.
  • Moderate, walking at more than 3.2 km/h such as while vacuuming, washing a car or bicycling for pleasure.
  • Vigorous, such as jogging or playing a competitive team sport.

National targets for Canadians to reap health benefits from physical activity are 60 minutes daily for youth ages five to 17, and 150 minutes a week for adults.

Fewer than 10 per cent of children and youth meet the current guideline of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day, a previous Statistics Canada study found

With files from CBC's Pauline Dakin