Originally published June 24, 2018, in the Calgary Herald.
By Eva Ferguson
As ParticipAction releases yet another annual report card giving Canadian kids a failing grade for physical activity, experts say educators need to ramp up efforts to create more opportunities for exercise at school.
The report stresses the connection between exercise and school is becoming more important than ever, echoing a growing body of evidence showing physical health translates into brain health, mental health, and academic success.
Only 35 percent of school-aged kids are getting the recommended physical activity levels for their age group, the report card found, and it may be having an impact on the health of their brains making them less attentive, moody and not meeting their full potential both in and out of the classroom.
The report stresses the low grade is “particularly alarming” because this year’s report card highlights important connections between physical activity and kids’ brain health.
“From increased cognitive skills to improved mental health, physical activity has profound impacts on kids’ brain health,” said Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer for the ParticipAction report card. “Yet, we now know that many Canadian children and youth are missing out on these benefits because of a lack of physical activity. So, for their brains’ sake, it’s time to get kids sitting less and moving more.”
Among a series of recommendations, the report card encourages schools and educators to provide daily opportunities for physical activity and active play during school hours, interrupt long periods of sitting with active breaks and educate children, youth and families that regular physical activity is good for the brain and the body.
“Research suggests that physical activity can change the structure and function of the brain,” the report states.
Children and youth who are physically active have larger brain volumes in the areas involved with memory and executive functions, including the hippocampus dealing with memory and emotions, and basal ganglia, dealing with motor movements, the report continues. Active kids are also better able to “switch on” brain regions responsible for high-level thinking, focused attention and self-regulation.
But Brian Torrance, spokesman for Ever Active Schools, says daily physical activity suffers a significant drop off in the later years.
In addition to increased use of screen time at home, kids at school are facing shortened lunch hours, longer periods of sitting in class and less walking to and from school.
“We know cognitive function improves with physical activity, mental health improves and children who are active tend to see better results in their academics too,” Torrance said.
“So we need to find ways to incorporate more physical activity throughout the school day, and look at wellness as a whole.”
Ever Active Schools, a province-wide initiative promoting physical well-being in conjunction with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, offers a series of ideas to keep kids moving all day on its website, like creating hopscotch games in hallways.
Anne Daniel, the Calgary Board of Education’s curriculum specialist for physical education, said the local district is working to include more activity into students’ days, particularly at the higher grades when students can often be seated in the classroom for several hours at a time.
Beyond Grade 10, when physical education is no longer mandatory, students are now offered several movement courses through the Career and Technology Studies stream, including yoga, outdoor education and sports medicine.
“Even if you’re not in phys ed, there are many other options for daily movement,” Daniel said.
Heather Cowie, manager for the city’s north and east recreation facilities and Calgary’s spokeswoman for ParticipAction, says this year’s report card is “heartbreaking.”
But she hopes its connection to brain health will motivate parents and educators to get kids moving.
“We need to think about how we can be more intentional as role models,” Cowie said.
“We’ve almost lost play in this generation — it might take us a generation to get it back.”
Cowie said she was particularly inspired by the report card’s recommendations for living healthy 24 hours a day by including 60 minutes of heart-pumping exercise, several hours of light activity, especially outdoors, and no more than two hours of screen time and eight to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
The ParticipAction Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth is the most comprehensive assessment of child and youth physical activity in Canada, synthesizing data from multiple sources, including the best available peer-reviewed research.