The vast majority of Canadians aren't moving enough to reap fitness benefits, and sedentary living is especially a problem among young people, Statistics Canada reports.

Studies released Wednesday compared the physical activity levels of Canadian adults to those who are sedentary, and found only 15 per cent moved enough to get substantial health benefits. Research involving six- to 19-year-olds found only seven per cent were active enough to make health gains. 

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Both adults and young people in the study spent most of their waking hours in sedentary pursuits. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

The findings, based on the 2007-09 Canadian Health Measures Survey, involve data on 2,800 adults, and 1,600 children and teenagers.

The reports are considered a more accurate measure of Canadians' activity levels because they are the first to be based on actual research, rather than relying on what people said they did. In those surveys, half of adults said they were at least "moderately active" in their leisure time.

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Researchers directly measured physical activity and time spent in sedentary, light, moderate and vigorous intensity movement (MVPA), as well as walking steps accumulated per day.

"Many adults are getting some physical activity, as 63 per cent accumulate 15 minutes of MVPA at least one day a week. However, this means that more than a third [37 per cent] do not reach even this modest level of activity," Mark Tremblay of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and his co-authors wrote.

"I think we need a comprehensive program to rehabilitate and recalibrate virtually the entire population about how much activity is necessary to be part of a healthy, active lifestyle," Tremblay added in an interview. 

The message for Canadians is to be as active as possible, Dr. Arya Sharma, an obesity specialist and scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network, said Friday in Toronto, commenting on the report.

"It's not about exercise, and I think that is really an important message," said Sharma. "This is about physical activity. This is about walking, and standing up, and doing things on your feet and doing that as often as you can throughout the course of the day."

Activity from the "free gym" of walking and taking the stairs — pieces we accumulate during the day — all count, Sharma said.

Inactive time

Both adults and young people in the study spent most of their waking hours sedentary.

Adults were sedentary an average of about 9.5 hours a day — 69 per cent of their waking hours.

For children and youth, 8.6 hours a day, or 62 per cent of their waking hours, were inactive.

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An accelerometer used to measure Canadians' fitness levels. ((CBC))

These averages increase with age: Among individuals in the study aged 15 to 19, sedentary time surpassed nine hours a day.

Among children, eight per cent of boys and five per cent of girls aged six to 10 were obese. By age 15 to 19, 10 per cent of girls were obese. The corresponding figure for boys of that age group were too unreliable to publish, Statistics Canada said.

For adults 40 to 59, 56 per cent of women were overweight, as were nearly 31 per cent of men the same age.

For the reports, participants wore small accelerometer devices over the right hip on an elasticized belt during their waking hours for seven days. The people wearing the accelerometers were not told what was being recorded.

The Public Health Agency of Canada supported the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) in reviewing the scientific evidence on physical activity and developing new physical activity guidelines that go into effect next week. The new guidelines were used for the Statistics Canada reports released Wednesday.

The target of 90 minutes daily for youth ages five to 17, and 30-60 minutes daily for adults have been lowered to 60 minutes for youth and 150 minutes a week for adults.

Outside a Toronto high-school, students said physical activity isn't a priority.

"I want to get into a good university so I want good marks, things I actually care about," said 18-year-old Shaniqua Castonguay.

Viva Vo said she used homework as an excuse not to work out and eat healthy foods until she was motivated to lose 19 pounds by the time she turned 19. Vo listened to the experts and starting moving more.

"It's been great," Vo said. "I lost a total of 15 pounds so far on my own. No pills, nothing, just eating healthy and exercising."

 Physical activity intensity measurements by accelerometer  
 Intensity  Example Accelerometer count range (counts per minute)
 Sedentary  Car travel, sitting, reclining, standing Less than 100
 Light  Walking less than 3.2 km/h, light household cleaning, cooking 100 to less than 1,535
 Moderate  Walking more than 3.2 km/h, vacuuming, washing car, bicycling for pleasure 1,535 to less than 3, 962
 Vigorous Jogging, competitve team sport participation 3, 962 or more
 

Source: Statistics Canada

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) set new exercise guidelines that take effect next week. In fact, the PHAC is supporting release of the new standards by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology.
    Jan 19, 2011 10:14 AM ET