Canadians' fitness levels plummet

The fitness levels of Canadian young people and adults declined significantly between 1981 and 2009, according to a new report.

Canadians are officially flabby and unfit.

Statistics Canada released the Canadian Health Measures Survey on Wednesday, a comprehensive fitness survey that actually directly measured Canadians of all ages, rather than relying on less reliable self-reports on data such as weight.

Portrait of typical 12-year-old boy in 1981 and 2007-2009


Then 150.9 cm (4'11")

Now 155.8 cm (5'1")


Then 41.6 kg (92 lbs)

Now 48.0 kg (106 lbs)

 Body mass index

Then 18.1 kg/metre squared

Now 19.2 kg/metre squared

 Waist circumference

Then 64.9 cm

Now 66.2 cm

Hip circumference

Then 78.0 cm

Now 84.0 cm

Source: Statistics Canada

"The results demonstrate a significant deterioration since 1981, regardless of sex or age. In particular, muscular strength and flexibility have decreased, and all measures of adiposity [fat] have increased," the authors of the report on children's fitness levels concluded.

"Children are taller, heavier, fatter and weaker than in 1981."

Among young children, 17 per cent are overweight and nine per cent are obese, based on the body mass index (BMI), a widely used measure of body fat. Researchers use it to track body-weight patterns in the general population.

Among those aged 15 to 19, the percentage whose waist circumference put them at an increased or high risk of health problems more than tripled, from less than three per cent to 15 per cent among boys, and from nine per cent to 28 per cent among girls.

The UN suggests healthy adults should have a BMI of between 18.5 and 25.

Expanding waistlines

The percentage classified as overweight or obese rose from 14 per cent to 31 per cent among boys, and from 14 per cent to 25 per cent among girls aged 15 to 19. 

Portrait of typical 12-year-old girl in 1981 and 2007-2009


Then 153.1 cm (5'0")

Now 155.9 cm (5'1")


Then 42.7 kg (94 lbs)

Now 47.6 kg (105 lbs)

 Body mass index

Then 18.4 kg/metre squared

Now 19.5 kg/metre squared

 Waist circumference

Then 62.4 cm

Now 68.0 cm

 Hip circumference

Then 81.2 cm

Now 86.0 cm

Source: Statistics Canada

For adults 20 to 39, it was worse. The percentage of people in that group at risk because of expanding waistlines has quadrupled in the last 30 years, from five per cent to 21 per cent for men, and from six per cent to 31 per cent in women.

Belly fat is considered more dangerous to health than excess weight on the hips and buttocks.

Overall, based on BMI, 19 per cent of males and 21 per cent of females aged 20 to 39 years were classified as obese. By age 60 to 69 years, the percentage was about one-third.

In comparison, a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Wednesday showed 34 per cent of adults and 17 per cent of children are obese.

Re-engineering unhealthy lifestyles

Canadians were complacent when the warning signs first appeared in 1981, said the project's lead researcher, Mark Tremblay of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

Tremblay attributed the worsening fitness levels to a "perfect storm" of:

  • Increased screen time in front of TVs and computers at home and work.
  • Greater dependence on cars.
  • Increased availability of convenience foods.
  • Deterioration in the quantity and quality of physical education.

"We've allowed an unhealthy lifestyle to cement itself into the fabric of our society, and now we're going to have to re-engineer that," Tremblay said.

To re-engineer society, he suggested giving schools more resources, supervising parks and redesigning communities to encourage movement.

The findings were not a surprise for Mike Perozak, who owns a business in Toronto that offers exercise sessions for children aged four to six.

"The other big factor I guess is … parents keeping their kids home more and the whole safety aspect," said Perozak. He advocates getting children excited about physical activity by playing games.

Among Canadian adults, the researchers also found 1.6 million Canadians or slightly more than six per cent of adults have high blood pressure.

In terms of aerobic fitness, about 32 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 69 were considered as having a "good" health level.

As part of the study, researchers took direct measurements, such as:

  • Body measurements, such as waist circumference and body fat distribution.
  • Cardio-respiratory fitness, including aerobic fitness as measured in a stepping test, and heart rate.
  • Musculoskeletal fitness, such as grip strength and the ability to do partial curl-ups.
  • Blood pressure.

The findings are based on measurements taken from 5,000 Canadians aged six to 70 and were collected at 15 survey sites across the country from March 2007 to February 2009.

Blood and urine samples were tested to determine heart health, diabetes, infectious disease, kidney health and other information.

Some DNA samples were stored for future research, including studies on Canadians' exposure to toxic pollutants.