Fitness: It’s time to get kids moving again

With screen time increasing and sleep habits deteriorating during the pandemic, it’s important to make physical activity a family priority.

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Getting kids to choose active play over screen time has never been easy. But the last two years have made an already difficult task even harder.

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Online schooling, organized sports being on pause, physical education classes conducted via Zoom, closed playgrounds and reduced social contacts have resulted in kids spending more and more of their day sitting in front of a screen. With nowhere to go and no one to play with, kids weren’t biking or walking to school, playing in the park, learning the basics of physical literacy in gym class or signing up for neighborhood sports leagues.

The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines state that children and youth age five to 17 should be in front of a screen for no more than two hours a day; accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to high-intensity physical activity daily; get nine to 11 hours of sleep per night for those age five to 13 and eight to 10 hours for age 14 to 17; and spend several hours a day performing a variety of structured and unstructured light physical activities. Yet according to ParticipACTION, only 4.8 per cent of five- to 11-year-old Canadians and 0.8 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds met those guidelines under COVID-19 restrictions in 2020, compared to 15 per cent of five – to 17-year-olds prior to the pandemic. Almost 80 per cent of those polled reported spending more of their leisure time in front of a screen, and 62 per cent were spending less time being active outdoors.

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There’s no doubt that the pandemic has profoundly changed the routines of kids and their families, and not just in Canada. School-age children around the world have been affected by lockdowns and restrictions. What’s not clear is just how much those restrictions affected our children’s daily activity patterns, including their sleep habits, all of which are considered vital to the physical, mental and psychological health and development of growing bodies.

To find out more about how kids and teens have managed during the pandemic, a team of Canadian researchers reviewed data gathered from 150 published studies examining physical activity, sedentary behaviors and screen time and sleep of school-age children and youth from 40 countries during the first year of the pandemic.

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“Given the extent and intensity of the global lockdown measures, there is a need for research on the long-term consequences of pandemic-related restrictions on the movement behaviors of children and youth,” the researchers said in a paper published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science.

What the data shows is that not all kids have been affected the same way, with geographic location, gender, age and socio-economic factors all playing a part in their activity patterns. Children and youth in homes with available outdoor space or who live within one kilometer of a park reported less of a decline in physical activity than kids in apartments or urban areas.

Also considered to have a positive impact on physical activity during the pandemic are two-parent households, having siblings, higher socio-economic status and households with set routines and schedules. Within the Canadian context, it was noted that the provinces with the most stringent outdoor restrictions saw the greatest decline in outdoor play.

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Almost all of the reviewed studies reported significant increases in screen time (for both academic and leisure use) among five- to 17-year-olds, with older youth spending more time online than younger children.

Sleep habits changed, too. “Studies that measured timing of bedtime / wake-up were generally in agreement, showing later sleep schedules, with shifts to both later bedtimes and waking times,” said the researchers. “This finding was demonstrated in both children and youth for both weekends and weekdays.”

Sleep quality was also affected, with most reports suggesting a pandemic-related decline. Interestingly, girls seemed to experience the greatest change in sleep habits, sleeping longer and experiencing a greater decrease in their quality of sleep.

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Also troubling was a universal decline in mental health, with greater quantities of screen time and less daily physical activity linked to increased depression, anxiety and insomnia.

What does that mean for our children as we slowly find our way to a new normal? According to Guy Faulkner, lead researcher and professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of kinesiology, there has been a small bounce-back in physical activity since the first year of the pandemic, but the amount of time kids spend in front of a screen continues to be a problem.

Faulkner suggests that the last two years have exposed how reliant we’ve become on structured physical activity. When organized sports and school-based physical activity came to a halt, we didn’t know how to keep kids, and ourselves, active.

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As parents, it’s time to get the whole family unplugged and moving again. And despite the many disruptions to organized sport, kids need to find their way back to soccer pitches, hockey rinks, swimming pools, baseball diamonds and basketball courts. A 2020 report issued by Sport for Life noted that 70 per cent of sports organizations across Canada were experiencing a decrease in registration and participation fees due to COVID-19, which means fewer kids could experience the joy of team sports.

“Family is a key source of influence on kids’ healthy movement,” said ParticipACTION. “It’s time to make physical activity a family priority and lead by example. If being active is second nature for adults, it will, in turn, become second nature for our children, too. “

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