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How the Government Can Make Kids' Sports More Affordable

07/22/2014 12:48 EDT | Updated 09/21/2014 05:59 EDT
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The benefits of regular exercise are well established. Physical activity is important for everyone. Kids benefit not only immediately but also by establishing a commitment to an active lifestyle that, hopefully, stays with them into their adult years.

A recent Huffington Post story revealing that many average families are feeling pinched by the costs of their children playing organized sports was bad news. A survey indicated that one third of kids between three and 17 do not participate in any organized physical activity. Sixty one per cent of respondents cited enrollment fees as the main barrier to participation. The survey also found that parents who had children enrolled in such activities spent, on average, $1,000 a year for each child.

These statistics are even more troubling in light of a recent report by Active Healthy Kids Canada. The assessment compared our kids, in nine categories of activity, to those in 14 other countries. Canada received an overall grade of D- putting it behind nations such as Mexico, Kenya, and Nigeria. Only 7 per cent of children ages five to 11 and a scant 4 per cent of those aged 12 to 17 achieve the recommended 60 minutes of daily activity.

Generally, the explanation for our young ones' low activity level does not lie with lack of availability of opportunities for exercise. Canada was ranked high in terms of infrastructure and programs that promote exercise. Accessing these activities seems to be the issue. And, as indicated earlier, costs, in many instances, appear to be one important barrier.

There could be a number of responses, including parents being more committed to an active lifestyle themselves and leading the way for their children. But here let's look at the Canadian Children's Fitness Tax Credit (CFTC) as one important means of lowering costs and increasing access for kids' participation. The idea is simple: children need to be more active. Governments have a role to play in encouraging kids to exercise more.

A voucher, available through the tax code, promotes involvement while also providing choice to parents and their children regarding which activities to participate in. It also encourages positive competition on the part of service providers as they seek to persuade the beneficiaries of the subsidy to spend their dollars with them. Some provinces, invoking their taxing powers, have given additional fitness credits aligned with the CFTC in order to generate even more savings for parents of participating children in those provinces.

An attractive aspect of the CFTC is that its focus is physical activity: putting the emphasis where it belongs -- on well-being and exercise, not weight. Obese children aren't singled out and stigmatized; all kids are encouraged to be active and healthy. But the credit does have its critics. They point to the fact that higher income families tend to claim the credit while many families with low income may not be able to take advantage of it because they file nontaxable returns.

The effectiveness of the CFTC does need to be improved. First, more education about the existence of the tax credit could assist more qualified people to claim it. Second, if it were larger, it could have more effect and promote more physical activity even among those already inclined to play sports, etc. Third, it could be modified so that it is available even to those who file a tax return but who do not have taxable income.

The CFTC is not the one and only response. But it is a direct way of addressing the cost of sports that encourage are kids to be engaged and active from their earliest years. Its potential needs to be part of several responses. Let's get our young ones up and moving -- into and through their adult years.

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