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Back to School Fitness

Melanie McQuaid leads Iron Kids race.
Melanie McQuaid leads Iron Kids race.

Tuesday is the first day back to school for most of the country. After a busy summer of outdoor fun, sports camps and constant activity, the school season brings with it more time indoors. For children, that often means sitting at a desk, behind a book or screen. For many parents and their kids, it also means more time making lunches in the morning, driving to and from school, and homework in the evenings.

But good grades and test scores aren’t the only thing that count when it comes to both your and your children’s well-being. Physical health and fitness are an important and essential part of how we feel and function each day. For many of us, that’s why we choose to run. Physical activity is shown to directly impact how well we learn, remember and process new information. It helps us to concentrate, focus and stay on task. It also allows us to socialize, have fun and release everyday stress and anxiety. Just as we can succeed at math or science, physical activity should be an important part of our daily routine and something we aim to accomplish each day.

According to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines published by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, children ages 5-11 and youth aged 12-17 years should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous physical activity every day. Activity should include, at least, vigorous activity, such as playing tag at lunchtime or soccer after school, three days per week as well as regular bouts that strengthen muscles and bones. One hour each day is considered the minimum amount to time needed to achieve health and fitness benefits and, when possible, more activity is usually beneficial.

For adults, the suggested guideline is 150 minutes per week, in bouts of 10 or more minutes, and which includes at least two days of muscle and bone strengthening activities. A few weekly runs and a long one on weekends is usually enough to meet that number.

Unfortunately for our kids, a 2014 report by Active Healthy Kids Canada found that Canadian children are not making the grade when it comes to physical health and fitness. Overall, we scored a ‘D-’ when it comes to overall physical activity. Studies found that only seven per cent of children (5-11) and four per cent of youth (12-17) are meeting the recommended guidelines. Canada also received a ‘D’ in active transportation where 62 per cent of those aged 5-17 are driven to and from school every day. Children and youth also spend 7.6 hours and 9.3 hours each day doing sedentary activities, earning us an ‘F’ in sedentary behaviours.

How our kids get to school and what they do both before and after has become increasingly passive, a far cry from the days when it wasn’t uncommon for children to walk to school nearly every day, regardless of weather.

But the report also offers hope. Canada is among the leading countries in fitness and health-promoting policies, places and programs. More than 94 per cent of parents report local availability of parks and outdoor spaces as well as public facilities and programs for physical activity. There is also physical education curriculum in place in every province and territory, where nearly all kids have regular access to a gym, sports fields and playground equipment during school hours. Moreover, 75 per cent of kids ages 5-19 are involved in some form of organized physical activity or sports. As such, access does not seem to be a good excuse for inactivity. Yet it is also not getting our kids the activity they need, and we expect, from such opportunities.

Parents need to be more aware of how our kids are spending their time, both at school and at home. Expecting the schools and the community to get them the activity they need are not enough. We must act on and for the behalf of our kids. Engage in physical activity with them. Inspire and encourage them. Model the behaviours we know are good for everyone.

There are seemingly hundreds of ways to get your kids more active throughout the day. If you are a runner, why not have your kids join you on foot or by bike, even for a short portion of your run? Or, go for a walk or bike ride together. If possible, organize a walking bus to encourage active school transportation in your community. It’s also cross-country season in most schools, so encourage your kids to join the team and enjoy both the physical activity and social fun.

A good education will always be important to children, but being active and promoting physical education is also a building block in long, healthy lives for kids which shouldn’t be ignored.