The Halifax Examiner is providing all COVID-19 coverage for free.

A national survey suggesting physical activity levels of Canadian children plummeted during the pandemic has researchers hoping the summer serves as a reboot for families.

The survey was published last week in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Tilted ‘Impact of the COVID-19 virus outbreak on movement and play behaviours of Canadian children and youth,’ the survey was commissioned by ParticipACTION and was led by Dalhousie University professor Sarah Moore. It also involved Outdoor Play Canada researchers and several universities from across the country. 

The results suggest that only 2.6% of children between the ages of 5 and 17 were meeting the minimum recommended requirements for physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep as outlined in the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth

That’s a steep drop from before the pandemic, when 15% of children were meeting those overall guidelines for optimal health.

A national survey led by Dalhousie University professor Sarah Moore shows children’s physical activity levels plummeted during the height of the pandemic. Photo: Contributed

“For sedentary behaviours or more screen time, only 11.3% of kids were meeting screen time guidelines, and those guidelines say that you should be watching less than two hours a day of recreational screen time,” Moore said in an interview. 

“In fact, some kids in our study were upwards of six hours of just recreational screen time not including the time spent for homework and other homeschooling. That was pretty dramatic although not unexpected.”

One silver lining was that 71% of children and youth were meeting the sleep guideline during restrictions created by the pandemic.

Moore said researchers conducted the nationwide study of 1,500 children and youth in early April, about one month after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and while everyone was still “in the thick of things.” 

“We know that physical activity improves cardiovascular health, metabolic function, lung function, it develops our muscles and bones, it improves our immune system which is particularly relevant for the COVID-19 outbreak,” she said.

“Then there are the mental health benefits. Decreasing stress levels, decreasing depressive symptoms and anxiety, increasing self image and self esteem, improving brain health, I could go and on.”

Knowing all the benefits of physical activity and recognizing there could be a reduction in those behaviours as a result of COVID-19 related restrictions, Moore was anxious to capture what was happening across Canada. 

“(The research) shows that grades for physical activity, screen time, and 24-hour movement behaviours would all be “F” during the COVID-19 lockdown,” notes a media release from Outdoor Play Canada. 

There are currently very few active cases of COVID-19 in Atlantic Canada, and Moore is encouraging families to tackle some fun summer homework by getting outside, being more physically active and allowing more time for play. All while being mindful of public health guidelines, of course. 

“The summer can be a time for recalibration of these healthy behaviours, and one really huge advantage of this lockdown was we did see that families were spending more time together,” she said. 

“I think that families should be reassured that these things will bounce back and don’t have a big guilt trip over all of these things. I think that my advice would be to take the summer to continue building those family relationships that have been generated over the course of the pandemic.”

She said in addition to being associated with a number of health benefits, children who are outside are “innately” more physically active than they’d be if they were exclusively indoors. 

Moore said researchers have other related studies currently underway, including one looking at the physical activity, sedentary behaviours, and sleep in children with disabilities. 

“They’re really struggling with how to get back and recover from this pandemic.”

They also have another study under review examining the role of neighbourhood environments in enabling or creating barriers to healthy movement behaviours.

“Living in an apartment was a potential deterrent to being outside,” she said. “Living in a single dwelling home that had a backyard meant you were more likely to be outside, and certainly there are these huge disadvantages based on neighbourhood and also socioeconomic status that has influenced the behaviours of these kids.”

She’s also conducting a follow-up study examining the differences in public policy across Canada throughout the pandemic and how that’s helped or hindered healthy behaviours in children. 

She also reminds families and policymakers to be mindful of the critical importance of play for children.

“Play is a refuge for children, so when children are experiencing stress, when children are experiencing trauma, playing is this place of imagination where they can escape those things, where they can role play, where they can problem solve, where they can develop other skills,” Moore explained. 

“If we could continue to enforce that play is critically important as we move through the recovery from this pandemic and also prepare for future pandemics and have that as a priority for parents and policymakers and so on, I think we’ll be that much better off.”

She hopes this national survey helps inform policies related to future waves of COVID-19 or other pandemics. She said while it’s important to try and halt transmission of the virus, we must also be mindful of mitigating negative health consequences that can arise from lockdowns. 

“Messaging is really important. Closing down public parks might not be necessary, it might be more necessary just to inform people about how to use parks in those scenarios and when to stay home,” she said.

“I think providing more clarity around those things and not shutting down opportunities for children to be able to engage with nature (is) a really important part.”

The Halifax Examiner is an advertising-free, subscriber-supported news site. Your subscription makes this work possible; please subscribe.

Some people have asked that we additionally allow for one-time donations from readers, so we’ve created that opportunity, via the PayPal button below. We also accept e-transfers, cheques, and donations with your credit card; please contact iris “at” halifaxexaminer “dot” ca for details.

Thank you!

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.