London

Shift toward more unstructured physical activities could be pandemic legacy, researchers find

Curious about what the cancelling of swimming lessons, dance classes and team sports did to family activity levels, researchers at Western University's Child Health and Physical Activity Lab set out to find how the pandemic has shifted how we move.

Researchers at Western's Child Health and Physical Activity Lab spoke to families across the province

Even outdoor sports such as soccer were cancelled for parts of the last two years. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )
Curious about what the cancelling of swimming lessons, dance classes and team sports did to family activity levels, researchers at Western University's Child Health and Physical Activity Lab set out to find how the pandemic has shifted how we move. 
Monika Szpunar is a researcher with Western University's Child Health and Physical Activity Lab. (Supplied by Monika Szpunar)

"As COVID expanded and became a global pandemic in March 2020, we wondered what that means for children's physical activity, because kids use sports, indoor facilities, arenas, and parks to get active, and all of those things closed," said Monika Szpunar, a research with the lab. 

Would parents turn to going for hikes or other outdoor activities to keep active, or would they bring out the screens, researchers wondered? 

"Screen time went up exponentially," Szpunar said. "A lot of parents reported that they kind of just let go with regard to policing screen time because it was the only thing for their kid to do, especially during the deep, deep, dark lockdowns in winter of 2020 and 2021."

Researchers interviewed kids and parents about their experience during the pandemic, and most of the kids said they really missed their friends and coaches, as well as tournaments when those were gone. Parents missed organized sports, too, because they bring a chance to socialize with others, they told researchers. 

'Shifted weekly schedules'

"They frequently mentioned going outside instead of what they used to do, especially for families who didn't have outdoor space. For example, people living in apartments or condos, they'd go to different parks or drive further to head somewhere to go outside." 

With pandemic restrictions largely lifted, families have begun to filter back to organized sports, but they've also been rethinking how much time they spend doing that, they told researchers. 

With structured activities shut down, families found different ways to spend time together and to get outside. (CBC News)

"A lot of people have said that they've totally shifted their weekly schedules. They realized how much time it took to drive to hockey or sports camp after work, pick the kid up or spend time at those facilities," Szupar said. 

"Whereas now, they can just pack their bike and go for a long bike ride and reach the same benefits of getting active. We noticed that in both parents and children that activities have moved from structured to unstructured."

The initial findings are based on a study in which families were interviewed. Researchers are also combing through a more extensive study of 1,300 parents in Ontario and their activity habits. 

now