Children in Toronto are participating in less physical activity and more sedentary behaviour which is negatively impacting their future physical, mental, and cognitive outcomes as well as their ability to face adversity later in life.  

Restrictions due to COVID-19 shutdowns that have ranged in severity since they began in mid-March have led to a decrease in physical activity rates among Canadian children (children refers to anyone aged 5-17).  

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which is the organization handling Canada’s federal response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, recommends that children participate in a minimum of 60-minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity.  

CBC News reported that just five per cent of Canadian children met these guidelines early in the pandemic. That is a 10 per cent drop from the 15 per cent of kids aged 5-17 that met pre–pandemic guidelines.  

George Kourtis, the head of TDSB’s Phys-ed program told CBC News in October that Phys-ed instructors have, “noticed that kids are out of breath immediately, so the lack of physical activity that’s taken place over the last seven months is showing.” 

With a clear decline in physical activity, encouraging an active lifestyle is more important than ever; especially if children are to develop healthy habits that they carry into adulthood. 

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, recently released an updated version of their guidelines for physical activity and sedentary behaviour for children, stating that they should “average” 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity opposed to participating in “at least” 60-minutes a day.  

The WHO report also acknowledged that the increase in sedentary behaviour is a precursor to adverse health outcomes, although they did not recommend any guidelines around limiting these behaviours. 

In a study by Genevieve F. Dunton and Colleagues published in the journal “BMC Public Health” the authors assessed physical activity rates of children aged 5-13 in the United States. They found that the pandemic has increased the amount of sedentary behaviour and reduced the amount of physical activity that children engaged in every day compared to pre-pandemic.  

They concluded that an increase in sedentary behaviour and a decrease in physical activity could become permanent changes in children which could lead to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  

The damage spans beyond just their physical health. 

In a 2019 study titled “Physical Literacy and Resilience in Children and Youth” it was concluded that physical literacy, (which can be defined as an ability to complete fundamental movement skills) in children and youth has a direct relationship on “young peoples’ capacity to thrive despite exposure to adversity.”  

In Canadian Sport For Life’s long-term athlete development model, it states that physical literacy is developed between birth and the approximate ages of 11 for girls and 12 for boys.  

These years lay down the foundation of a child’s physical development as they progress their ability to demonstrate fundamental movement skills that can later translate to a variety of areas in life from participating in sport to just staying active.  

Sport For Life identified that these key skills can be developed in a variety of places including schools, sports clubs, community recreation, sports programs, and home.  

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions, access to these places that offered the opportunity for key motor skills to be developed pre-pandemic is now limited.  

With the opportunity to develop physical literacy limited and sedentary behaviour on the rise, it is more important than ever to encourage children and youth to include physical activity as part of their daily routine.  

Sydney Hannah, a volunteer mentor (known as a BIG) with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto understands the importance of developing a fondness for physical activity early in life, “I think it’s so important that children engage in physical activity early in their life so that taking care of their physical wellbeing becomes a normal and important part of their lifestyle instead of it feeling like a chore or obligation.” 

While COVID-19 restrictions have limited their time together, and physical distancing measures have limited the activities that they can do together, Hannah has found ways to encourage her Little to participate in an active lifestyle.  

“It’s more important now than ever. Lockdown puts restrictions on a lot of things, but moving your body and maintaining a healthy physical lifestyle should not be jeopardized. I encourage Ella to get outside as much as she can, and always look for a way to get her heart rate going – she even has an indoor trampoline that she can jump on when she calls or FaceTime’s me!” 

As children have lost access to many influential people in their lives who encourage an active, healthy lifestyle, BIGS and other role models like Hannah have had to step into that role. 

With physical literacy rates dropping and sedentary behaviour on the rise it is more important than ever that children and youth have access to a consistent adult that encourages an active lifestyle.