British Columbia

Canadian kids among least active in the world, report card finds

A new global study of physical activity among children shows Canada could learn from countries where 'Being active is not just a choice but a way of life.'

Study of 38 countries suggests Canada could learn from places where 'being active is ... a way of life'

Children take part in a dance class in Toronto on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. It's well-established that Canadian kids are not as active as they could be. Now a new study suggests they're among the least active kids in the world. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Canada has a lot to learn from the "cultural norms" of other countries when it comes to active kids, says a new global comparison of 38 countries published today based on the annual Participaction Report Card on Physicial Activity for Children and Youth.

That report card has already given Canadian kids an F for sedentary behaviour, a D- in overall physical activity and a D+ for active play, in Participaction's annual release last summer.

Now, a series of reports published today in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health ranks 37 other countries on the same criteria, and show we have lessons to learn from Zimbabwe, Slovenia and New Zealand, among others.

While the most active countries differ in context and approach, "physical activity is driven by pervasive cultural norms," said lead author Dr. Mark Tremblay of Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa in a release.

"Being active is not just a choice but a way of life."

New Zealand did relatively well in active play, with a B-. The report looked at how long and how often kids did things like climbing trees, playing in the rain and 'mucking around.' (Healthy Active Kids New Zealand)

'Paradox' of infrastructure

The report cites a "paradox" in many countries, including Canada, where good infrastructure, government programs and organized sports are not associated with high levels of daily activity.

"The findings are rather concerning," said Mariana Brussoni, an associate professor in the department of Pediatrics at the University of B.C., who worked on the Participaction report card.

"Basically, what we're finding is that Canada is doing quite badly in terms of physical activity lately."

Conversely, kids in countries with poorer infrastructure — such as Zimbabwe, with an F in the "built environment" category — had lower sedentary behaviour and higher levels of activity.

It's not that Zimbabwean children are playing a lot — the report from that country found they're not. But by necessity, about 80 per cent are walking to school, not driving.

"A lot of kids in Zimbabwe don't have access to cars," said Brussoni.

An image from the front cover of the Republic of Slovenia's 2016 report card on physical activity for children and youth. (Active Healthy Kids Slovenia)

Slovenia, New Zealand top list for physical activity

The top grade for physical activity went to Slovenia (A-) followed by New Zealand (B-) and Zimbabwe (C+).

In Slovenia, more than three-quarters of school-age kids are getting the recommended 60 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity per day  — compared to just nine per cent in Canada.

A key difference: Slovenia builds physical fitness into school time, through a national program and tests them each year, said Brussoni.

"If it looks like they need more, then they actually move up the amount of physical activity."

The Netherlands, famous for its cycle-friendly culture, got the highest score for active transportation and ranked among the highest for active play.

"If you want to get around, you just get on your bike," said Brussoni.

And in New Zealand, there was a lot of playing outside — or as that country's report called it, "mucking around."

Brussoni, who studies child injury prevention and outdoor play, hopes Canada can learn from that.

"We need to provide kids much more freedom in terms of their independent mobility to be able to go out and play, be outside unsupervised and so on."

An image from the front cover of the Dutch report card for physical activity for children and youth, showing a father and child cycling without helmets. (Active Healthy Kids The Netherlands)

With files from Farrah Merali