Parents' behaviours key to kids' healthy living, Ontario survey suggests

Active parental support is essential to encourage children to be physically active, eat their fruits and veggies and turn off screens, researchers say.

Both kids and parents should 'not only move more but also sit less,' researchers say

When parents are more active, so are their kids, an Ontario survey suggests. (Peter Pereira/Standard Times/Associated Press)

Parents who sit on the playground bench eating chips and texting really aren't encouraging healthy behaviours in their children.

Researchers at Public Health Ontario set out to look at the relationship between parental support for their children's physical activity, healthy eating and screen time behaviours and the likelihood that their child was meeting Canadian guidelines for healthy living.

To that end, they conducted phone surveys with 3,206 parents or guardians of at least one child under the age of 18 in the province.

"In Canada, more than 30 per cent of children are overweight or obese," Dr. Heather Manson, the agency's chief of health promotion, chronic disease and injury prevention, said in a news release.

"Given the important role parents play in the lives of their children, we were keen to determine what types of parental behaviours were more likely to be associated with healthy living for their children. We learned that simple encouragement is not enough — active parental support is essential," she added.

For example, Canadian guidelines suggest that kids between five and 17 years old get at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per day. Only nine per cent of children do so.

In contrast, parents' own physical activity levels as observed by their children, often called parental modelling, is associated with kids moving more, the researchers say in Tuesday's issue of BMC Public Health.

Similarly, encouragement or positive reinforcement is also related to child and adolescent physical activity, perhaps by increasing children's feelings of competency.

In the study, parents who reported taking their children places where they can be active were more likely to have children who met physical activity guidelines.

Kids move more when parents join them in activity

Parents who reported encouraging their child to be active outdoors with friends and family also seemed to motivate physical activity, the researchers said.

While playing in the great outdoors is thought to promote kids' motor development, Participaction has reported a "protection paradox" whereby parents keep their children inside to keep them safe from injury or crime.

In the study, children were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines if parents said they took part in physical activity with them.

In terms of healthy eating, parents who reported eating meals as a family, away from the TV, were more likely to report their children met guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption. Those who served raw fruits and veggies as snacks were almost five times more likely to have children eating enough of them.

Canadian guidelines recommend four to eight servings per day, depending on age and sex of child.

Sitting bad for health, sitting in front of a screen worse

For the final factor — screen time — parents who enforced rules about their children's screen time were more likely to report their children met the guideline, which recommends that kids five to 17 years of age limit recreational screen time to no more than two hours per day.

But children were less likely to meet screen time guidelines when parents reported that the family watches TV together, the researchers said. It could be that making a habit of watching TV together as a family becomes problematic because of the harms of sedentary behaviour.

"Current recommendations call for individuals to not only move more but also sit less," the researchers wrote.

"Time spent sitting is bad for health, but time spent sitting in front of a screen is worse."

For instance, the authors pointed to a previous study that suggests family relationships may be more important for decreasing sedentary time watching TV or videos and playing computer or video games in 10- to 14-year-old girls.

A limitation of the study is that the survey data was all self-reported by parents who might not accurately recall their children's health behaviours. 


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