Children’ bodily exercise dropped throughout pandemic, however researchers inspired by extra outside play


A new study attempts to quantify what many parents likely already know: The dismal activity levels of children and teens fell even further during the pandemic, while screen time skyrocketed.

ParticipAction’s latest physical activity certificate gives children and young people a “D” for physical activity – down from the “D-plus” in the 2020 certificate.

At the same time, children succumbed to more sedentary screen time and received an “F” in this category, billed as a “significant decrease” from the “D-plus” in 2020.

The 15th edition of the testimony is based on data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when play dates, sports activities and physical education classes suddenly came to a halt for many children.

For the third year in a row, the ParticipAction testimonial for children and young people awarded an overall grade of “F”, which takes into account physical activity, screen time and sleep recommendations.

The scientific director of ParticipAction, Dr. Leigh Vanderloo attributes the setback largely to the aftermath of sweeping infection control measures introduced in spring 2020.

But she also points to encouraging signs that many families have discovered a renewed zest for outdoor activities during the pandemic, suggesting grades could rise again if enthusiasm for outdoor activities continues during gym and physical education classes is resumed.

“I think this will serve more as an outlier,” Vanderloo said of how the data is viewed alongside past and future testimonials.

“There was this revival of spending time outdoors. We’ve seen it with camping registrations and park uses – some of them have been off the charts, they’ve never seen so much [demand among] People who want to go outside,” she said. “Partly because there weren’t many options, but hopefully that will continue.”

The public’s embrace of parks, trails, and other outdoor spaces for family entertainment and exercise allowed this year’s household support grade for physical activity to remain a C, while active getting around rose to a C– and active play rose from F to a D–.

Bigger difficulties may lie in reversing the rise in screen use, Vanderloo said, noting that school closures have forced children onto laptops and computers to continue their education, while physical distancing rules have encouraged social media and screen-based entertainment rather than face-to-face conversation time.

Add in the draw of TikTok and new social media stars from the pandemic era — not to mention the likelihood that parents have increased screen time, too — and the challenge of freeing teens from their devices becomes particularly difficult, Vanderloo said .

Harm-mitigation strategies are unlikely to work now, she suggests, calling the tactic a “finger-pointed approach” that emphasizes the detrimental effects of screen use.

“I don’t think that’s a benefit,” Vanderloo said, believing people will continue to use screens more than they should.

A more effective strategy might be to involve the entire family in assessing screen use and finding alternative activities to stagger that sedentary time, she said.

“We know kids will do it, we know families will use screens for entertainment, to stay connected with loved ones or even to learn things,” she said.

“So how can we make sure that when we use screens, we try to do it as healthily and responsibly as possible? Are there discussions? Will it be watched with the kids? Are indoor screen-free zones set in the house, like maybe not at dinner and not in the bedroom?”

Ways to be active are not created equal

It’s also important to study social determinants of health, including income, education and geography, to understand how they affect healthy lifestyles, Vanderloo added.

For the first time, the testimony examined the well-being of girls, immigrants, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQ and racialized youth, recognizing that the pandemic was exacerbating previously existing health inequalities.

It found that children in higher-income families were more likely to spend more time outdoors, while car-free streets were generally found in areas with less visible minorities and fewer households with children.

That’s partly because racialized children and newcomers to Canada often live in crowded, disadvantaged neighborhoods, said Dr. Anna Banerji, pediatrician at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“It’s not easy to create that space when you have a higher population density,” Banerji, who was not involved in the report, told CBC News.

Traveling to another part of the city where there are open spaces for physical activity is also difficult when people don’t have cars or can’t afford bicycles, she said.

The testimony is a synthesis of national-level papers and surveys, but lacks data on marginalized groups, the study says, emphasizing the need for researchers to bridge the gap.

“If we don’t have a baseline, how can we help support and really understand what their needs are?” said Vanderloo. “If we’re going to move the needle, we need to know. I think I was surprised at how little we knew.”

Excluded children and youth are already facing barriers to physical activity and recreation before the pandemic, Banerji said, such as the cost of exercise equipment.

Programs that waive fees and loan sports equipment are needed to address this issue and to ensure communities have public facilities for children and youth to play, she said.