05/26/2014 12:28 EDT | Updated 07/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Get Your Kids Away From the TV and Outside To Play

Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign has been a rallying cry calling all to physical activity in the U.S. and beyond. For good reason.

There are major benefits to sports, exercise and other forms of recreation. What is more, starting young helps to produce these benefits right from the beginning and to form habits that can last a lifetime. A survey has found that 90 per cent of Americans who participate in an outdoor activity began to do so between the ages of 5 and 18.

Young people who grow up being physically active are -- hopefully -- more likely to be so as adults. Exercise helps control weight, at least for some, build muscle, achieve healthy cardiovascular, hormonal and immune systems and promote strong bone and joint development. Physical activity can also strengthen mental health: relieving depression and increasing self-esteem. It may help to prevent dementia in older adults. There is also research that suggests that exercise is associated with improved academic performance.

What we experience from the first few years of life can greatly influence who we are in later years. Development of infants proceeds rapidly. What happens to children at the start is "built into their bodies" affecting neural, metabolic, and behavioural systems in ways that can influence well-being throughout the life-span. Early development provides a period in which healthy dietary and activity patterns can be established that -- it is hoped -- can provide a foundation for all the other years. Yet infants who gain weight rapidly in the first year of life are 1.17 to 5.70 times more likely to become obese compared with those who do not experience such gains during the same period.

If bad habits are set during that early time they can be undone only with great difficulty. Survey data in the United States indicate that the youngest children have diets that are too high in energy and added sugar, fat, and salt, and that include too few fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. With respect to activity patterns too many young children have lifestyles that include too much screen time, not enough sleep, and too little active play. The record in Canada may be somewhat better but we still fall short in many ways.

A startling instance of how we are not measuring up has been provided by the recently released annual report of Active Healthy Kids Canada. This year it compared our young ones to children in 14 other countries. A bad report card; we have a long way to go.

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. Our toddlers do pretty well: 84 per cent of kids 3 and 4 get the recommended 180 minutes of daily exercise. After that activity levels fall. Only 7 per cent of children ages 5 to 11 and a scant 4 per cent of those aged 12 to 17 achieve the recommended 60 minutes of daily activity. Facts that defy the hope, expressed above, that an early, positive start is a foundation for continuing, substantial activity.

Generally, the explanation does not lie with lack of availability of opportunities for exercise. Canada was ranked high in terms of infrastructure and programs that promotes physical activity. More can and should be done in that regard. The assessment, for example, suggests measures to promote active transportation (walking, cycling) to get to school (62 per cent of kids 5 to 17 are driven to and from these institutions). We could also beef up the Children's Fitness Tax Credit to provide more concrete financial incentives for participation in activity programs.

But a large piece of all of this is to change attitudes: the young ones (and, yes, adults) need to want to be physically active. That shift is a hard one. Part of it lies in kids, prompted by adults, backing away from tv, the Internet, and the computer. The Active Healthy Kids Canada assessment indicates that 66 percent of parents think their children spend too much time watching tv etc. And those responsible for the young ones are pretty much on their own. There are few state rules or regulations in this regard; nor should there be. A word of advice (easier said than done): push the off button.

Active Healthy Kids Canada: Nice name for an organization. The reality for our children seems otherwise.


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