York faculty member helps grade kids’ physical activity

In a recent study, some 88 per cent of parents reported their kids are getting plenty of physical activity, yet research shows 87 per cent of Canadian children and youth are not getting the recommended 90 minutes of daily physical activity. That has Michelle Brownrigg, who teaches Lifestyle and Current Health Issues in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Sciences in the Faculty of Health, wondering about the cause of the disparity.

"It’s a big perception gap," says Brownrigg. "I think families have let the screen take over a lot more than they realize." Screen time was given an F in the Active Healthy Kids Canada Physical Activity Report Card released this June.

As chief executive officer of Active Healthy Kids Canada, Toronto, and the program officer for Active Healthy Kids Canada Physical Activity Report Card for Children and Youth since its launch in 2005, Brownrigg has more than a passing interest in physical fitness and parents’ misperception of how much physical activity their children are engaged in. The report card consolidates the most recent literature examining the influences and outcomes connected to physical activity.

"People are busy and they think that means their kids are active, but busy is not active. If their kids are in three organized events, they think they are active," she says. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Brownrigg says parents need to think about what their children are doing when they eat breakfast. Are they in front of the TV or computer screen? How do they get to school; are they driven? What kinds of physical activity do they get while in school? Do they walk or bicycle home from school? And are they physically active once they get home or in after school child care and recreation settings? She thinks the answers will surprise them.

"I think our busy lives can actually contribute to a lack of physical activity," she says.

The category for physical activity levels received an F on the report card, while active transportation (how kids got to and from school) received a D. Just over one-third of children walk to school reported parents and 80 per cent have never cycled to school. And if parents think their children are getting their physical fitness needs met by the school, they need to think again, says Brownrigg. Physical education received a C- as only 23 per cent of schools reported having a trained physical educator teach physical education.

As for organized activities, not only is it not giving kids the amount physical fitness recommended, those children in the lowest income bracket are three times more likely to never have participated in organized activities and sports as those in the highest income level. Organized sport and physical activity participation was given a grade of C. In addition, the percentage of kids involved in organized sports has slipped over the years.

But all is not lost. This fall, Brownrigg, who uses the Active Healthy Kids Canada Physical Activity Report Card in her fourth-year course at York, will be able to report to that things are going in the right direction, albeit slowly.

Left: Michelle Brownrigg

Since 2006, the percentage of children and youth who were meeting the recommended amount of physical activity has increased from nine per cent to 13 per cent, a trend Brownrigg is hopeful will continue. It still warrants an F grade, but it’s improving. In addition, the Canadian Ministers of Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation are committed to seeing that figure reach 20 per cent by 2015. "We are on a positive trajectory," she says.

Another positive is the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute‘s five-year major national survey to examine physical activity levels of children and youth. The Canadian Physical Activity Levels among Youth Survey, which includes about 10,000 children and youth, some 6,000 families randomly selected across Canada, will wrap up in 2010. The Active Healthy Kids Canada Physical Activity Report Card draws on that research each year in coming up with a grade for how well Canadian children and youth are doing at being physically active. It’s an important study that provides firm data, says Brownrigg.

After all, physical activity benefits more than just the physical body and health, it benefits the brain as well, says Brownrigg. Recent research has linked physical activity to better school performance. It improves memory, concentration and attention span as well as grades and test scores. It reduces misconduct behaviours at school while increasing feelings of school connectedness. It also facilitates the inclusion of children with developmental or learning differences.

The report card draws attention to the most recent research on children and physical activity and makes parents and educators aware of the findings in an easy to grasp format. It’s an annual barometer on how well families and educators are doing at keeping kids active, says Brownrigg. It also drives further research into areas that are lacking and provides good information for policymaking and advocacy. Without it, stakeholders who receive the report card say there would be a gap.

Informing the community, educators, as well as students, about the latest research into physical activity in children and youth is something Brownrigg is passionate about. She has worked in the area for over a decade. Before joining Active Healthy Kids Canada, she was with the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting schools and communities through quality program supports, partnerships and advocacy. She was also the health promotion consultant with the Laidlaw Foundation.

For more information on the Active Healthy Kids Canada Physical Activity Report Card for Children and Youth, visit the Active Healthy Kids Canada Web site.