An Hour a Day Keeps the Doctor Away – Strengthening Physical Activity Among Canadian Youth

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Physical activity has always been an important aspect of my life. Growing up on a ranch in Southern Alberta, I had the opportunity to spend most of my time outdoors engaged in active work and play.  I have always felt that physical activity for students is an important component of their educational development. But what is actually happening in schools? Are students getting enough daily physical activity?

The opportunity to answer this question came in the fall of 2014, when Canadian Tire Corp., a founding member of ACTIVE AT SCHOOL, commissioned The Learning Partnership (TLP) to conduct a research study with the goal of identifying new opportunities to address the issues of physical activity among children and youth in Canada.

For those who are not familiar with ACTIVE AT SCHOOL, it is a multi-year, multi-million dollar grassroots program, consisting of a broad based group of more than 80 partners dedicated to reversing the trend of inactivity among Canadian youth by ensuring every child across the country receives the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity a day, either before, during or after school.  Each partner brings individual networks, unique expertise, resources and marketing channels to promote the ACTIVE AT SCHOOL initiative with educators and decision makers across all levels of government.

With the support of ACTIVE AT SCHOOL, we produced a report that was launched in November, and most recently in January, I attended and proudly presented the findings from the report at the Ever Active Schools (EAS) conference, Shaping the Future 2015 in Alberta. Key findings of our research reveal:

  • Physical Activity Leads to Increased Academic Achievement
  • Every Province and Territory in Canada Has Physical Education Policies in Place
  • Our Children and Youth Are Not Active Enough
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Gerry Connelly at the Shaping the Future conference with Meaghan Mikkelson, 2010 & 2014 Olympic Gold Medalist.

However, our research revealed that there are also a number of obstacles and barriers to physical activity. For example, schools lack support and resources. There is a perception by both parents and educators that physical activity is not as important as other subjects, and in our cross Canada curriculum policy scan we found a lack of consistent monitoring to ensure educators are adhering to Ministry and School District policy.

Overall, although Canada is a leader in many areas, these strengths are not translating to increased activity in our children and youth. There are comprehensive policies in place, as well as growing evidence of the benefits of activity, but too many barriers are still inhibiting access, priority and delivery. Just look at Finland. They are widely considered the most physically active country in Europe and a top scoring country in student achievement on international OECD tests.  For them a typical school day consists of 6 one hour blocks – 45 minutes of instruction and 15 minutes of physical activity.  Are there lessons we can learn from our Finnish counterparts?

Reaching ACTIVE AT SCHOOL’s goal of 60 minutes of activity every day will require all stakeholders to build on their strengths; rectify weaknesses and obstacles; and to capitalize on opportunities and address any risks should they occur. Only then can we elevate physical activity to the prominence it deserves among Canadian youth.

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Gerry Connelly is a retired Director of Education for TDSB. After many years of leading Canada’s largest school board, she now uses her wisdom and expertise to guide The Learning Partnership’s Policy and Knowledge Mobilization team.

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