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So many Canadians are unfit that new national guidelines will lower the recommended levels of daily activity to encourage them to get off the couch, CBC News has learned.

A poll commissioned by the CBC suggests 42 per cent of adults say they get no vigorous exercise and 34 per cent of youth get fewer than two hours per week — what one exercise expert calls a "public health crisis of inactivity."

Just 12 per cent of Canadian children are getting the recommended 90 minutes of exercise a day, the survey indicates. Among adults, it is worse, with most getting only about two hours of exercise a week compared with the current recommended 60 minutes a day.

Canada's new physical activity guidelines, due later this month from the Public Health Agency of Canada, lower the targets to 60 minutes a day for kids and 150 minutes a week for adults — changes that reflect the latest research and harmonize standards with the World Health Organization and U.S. and U.K. authorities.

The easier guidelines reflect how unfit Canadians are, said Mark Tremblay, who runs the exercise lab at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa.

"It takes less and less of a stimulus to the body to produce a physiologic response," Tremblay explained. Just 10 minutes of physical activity will offer health benefits for someone who is completely sedentary, he said.

Another reason for moderating the guidelines is to help reach public health goals. Behavioural scientists say they hope couch potatoes will try to reach the new, easier targets.

The idea is to get people who currently do no physical activity to do some and to get those who do move to move a little more, Tremblay said.

It's all about priorities, said trainer Danny Gooden in Halifax.

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"You got to be selfish in this fitness thing," Gooden said. "You gotta make time for yourself. You gotta give yourself an hour, even 20 minutes, even 10 minutes. Do something."

Lifeguard Janelle Bourniot, 22, who is one of Gooden's clients, admits that surviving on junk food and caffeine left her feeling chubby and out of shape. Her goal is to swim 400 metres without feeling out of breath.

 

Kids and physical activity

As a physical education teacher, Jeff Grant can easily tell which students are getting some exercise outside gym class.

"You see graphic difference starting with agility, cardio, strength, speed, stamina, co-ordination," said Grant, who teaches at Lawfield Elementary School in Hamilton, Ont. "It all shows from those that spend a little bit extra time playing rather than being at home on the couch."

Children who are physically active seem happier, Grant has observed.

Overall, the average 12-year-old today is rounder, fatter, weaker and less flexible than the average 12-year-old in 1981, Statistics Canada has found.

"It's pretty tough," Bourniot said of her workout. "But it's really nice when you hear someone say, 'Oh, you're looking great!' So that's always a plus."

In the survey, 45 per cent of young people 12 to 17 years old said they don't exercise because they don't have time. 

One solution for those pressed for time is high-intensity interval training.

In 30-second spurts that total six gruelling minutes, people of all ages, fitness levels and health — from cardiac patients and diabetics to elite athletes — can benefit.

"Getting out of your comfort zone for a short period of time and then backing off," is the idea, said Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Tests on people with Type 2 diabetes have shown marked improvements in blood sugar levels after six sessions or two weeks with this type of training, Gibala said.

Typically, the sessions involve four sets of exercise, such as pedalling an exercise bike or running on a treadmill, three times a week. The intensity is between traditional moderate-level exercise and going all out to the point of losing your breath.

If someone's typical exercise is walking around the block, for example, an interval session might be walking faster between two or more utility poles, Gibala suggested.

Just 31 per cent of Canadian adults say they get as much as three to five hours a week of light activity such as walking or yoga, according to the CBC's online poll, conducted Nov. 10-17 by Leger Marketing.

The survey of 1,514 adults and 506 youth aged 12 to 17 claims a 95 per cent likelihood of reflecting the total Canadian population within plus or minus 2.5 percentage points from the adult sample and 4.4 percentage points in the youth sample.

 

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The average 12-year-old now is fatter, less flexible and weaker than an average child of the same age three decades ago. ((Statistics Canada) )