Obesity Panacea

i-c4968d63363259cab6fad916480486e1-beach.jpgImage by shanevaughn

Today is the first day of summer vacation here in Ontario, and I assume that the summer break has begun in most other parts of North America as well.  That means that millions of kids are looking at 8 gloriously school-free weeks in July and August.  Now while physical activity promotion folks like myself would hope that all of these kids are going to spend their summer outside being physically active, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that that is not the case for most kids. 

Since these are kids, parents obviously have a huge amount of control over the way they spend free time.  So what do parents look for when making summer plans for their kids?  According to a new survey by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario/Environics, physical activity doesn’t play into the decision making process for most parents

When asked to name the biggest challenge to making summer plans for
their kids, 49% of parents in the Greater Toronto Area named
affordability, while just 17% said it was ensuring that the child was
physically active.  Now I don’t think that anyone is surprised that the
primary concern would be affordability, but physical activity was literally
the bottom of the list, well below other concerns including safety,
that the program be beneficial for the child in some way, or simply
knowing what programs are available.  Now we could interpret this a few
ways – perhaps finding summer activities that involve physical activity
isn’t a challenge because there are so many opportunities that involve
physical activity.  But again, given the low levels of physical activity
being performed by Canadian children, that seems unlikely.  What seems
more likely is that physical activity just is not the primary (or
tertiary, or even quaternary (?)) concern for most parents.  That
doesn’t mean that parents deserve all the blame
, but it’s still an
interesting statistic.

i-e2a89b4f79eb255b35e3cb15958bac5e-sharon brodovsky.JPGAfter the release of the survey I had the
opportunity to discuss the results with Sharon Brodovsky (at left) from
the Heart and Stroke Foundation.  I find it very interesting and
frustrating that the solutions to these issues seem so incredibly simple
(e.g. take your kids to the park), and yet childhood physical activity
levels still don’t seem to be improving.  That’s one of the reasons why I
like Sharon’s Spark
program, since it focuses explicitly on advocacy and creating a
societal movement for healthier children, rather than placing all of the
burden on parents (for my earlier post on Spark, click here).  If you only have time to read one answer, jump to
number 6, as I that’s the one that I found by far the most interesting,
and the most important for those of us promoting physical activity.

the interview!



Affordability was the number one concern in your survey.  If a parent
can’t afford to send their kid to camp, what practical steps can they
take to make sure their child has a physically active summer? 

are many options in the city that are free. Playing in their
backyard, local parks, accessing local city outdoor pools, wading pools
playgrounds.  Take advantage of the summer weather and play outside as
much as possible.  Meet at the nearest park with other families in your
neighbourhood or building and play a pick up soccer game. Schedule
activity time into your daily summer routine.

2.  Your press release mentions that back in the day, “summertime meant we got on our bikes in the
and came back before the streetlights came on.
”  How can we
get back to that, especially in large cities?  Is it even possible to
back to that type of lifestyle?  Is it as simple as locking the kids

We can’t
go back to those days nor should it be something to strive
for because our cities and lifestyles have changed. It’s not about
locking our
kids outside but giving kids and parents new sets of keys to so that
easier for kids and their parents to be active and play outside.

3.  Dr Di Buono mentions that when left to their own devices, kids often
choose sedentary activities like video-games.  You’re a parent – how do
you make sure that unstructured playtime is still physically active?

This is
where parents need to be parents and role models, kids
naturally want to play and it’s more fun with someone – a video game is
just a substitute play mate.  Summer is the perfect time to be outside
if kids are given an open space with a ball or a Frisbee and or friends –
will actively play, run, skip,  and jump.

4.  There is a movement trying to legalize street hockey in the GTA
it’s technically illegal).  This seems to suggest that it’s not just
parents that need to take action – it’s the entire community.  What can
individual people do to advocate more effectively for physically active

totally agree with the “takes a village to raise a child”
approach and we as parents and citizens need to start speaking up to our
friends, neighbours, city counselors and others about making our
more accessible to be physically active – legalizing street games,
our trails and bikes paths into our daily commutes, etc. Lead by
example, if
people see others outside playing – they will follow.

5.  Your press release says that the priority for parents is to find
solutions that are affordable, convenient, and safe, as opposed to ones
promote physical activity.  What is the solution? (e.g. make everything
more safe/affordable, convince parents of the importance of PA, all of
above, etc).

really is a bit of all of the above as all are priorities and
barriers that prevent our kids from being active


6. A lot of the tips
(e.g. go play outside) are simple for people who are
already active and have at least a basic level of skill and knowledge
about physical activity.  But what about the people who either don’t
have the sport skills, or the time, or are being impeded by any other
barrier?  I struggle with this a lot, because the general tips that we
give to people are simple and seem relatively easy to implement (to us
at least), and yet they still don’t seem to be catching on.  Do you
think the issue is still one of educating people (e.g. telling them that
kids are better off outside than in front of a TV), or do we need to
move beyond that somehow?  I really don’t know what the answer is, but
I’m curious to hear what you think. 

Travis this is an excellent
question it made me sit back and
think.  The answer is yes we still have to provide the “educational”
messages.  Rather than move beyond, it is about more – education +
advocacy.  We also need to work at the policy level – to make it more a
cultural/societal “norm” to be active – for our kids (and us adults). 
The same way that recycling is now part of our everyday lives – city
streets have appropriate multi-stream receptacles, as do stores,
restaurants and arenas.  What truly makes it sustainable is that the
public now expects this norm, and happily divides their garbage as
required.  This is what we also need for physical activity.  We have to
work to make it easier and more embedded in our daily lives and seen as a
cultural “norm” to be active.

7.  You’ve got 100
to convince our readers that they should all join the Spark campaign,
of geographical location.  🙂

The Heart and Stroke Foundation
of Ontario believes that every child has the right to grow up healthy
and have
access to physical activity and recreation.  There is a health crisis
looming if we do not act now.
This is the first generation of kids that may not live as
as long as their parents.  And it’s not their fault. Together we can
advocate for change to ensure that all children are active and that the
healthiest choice is the easiest choice for parents and children alike. 
Get involved, stay informed at www.heartandstroke.ca/spark our
children’s future
depends on it.


  1. #1 Nadine
    June 28, 2010

    I think that many parents, myself included, just assume that there will be a physical activity component included in most all day summer programs. I think the people offering camps and child care need to be reminded to include physical activity and parents need to be reminded that not all camps or child care will automatically include it.

  2. #2 thomas
    June 28, 2010

    to be honest, if you think that it is still ‘education’ that is lacking you are delusional.
    same with food. explain to people that tuna is almost extinct, tell them the impact of farmed fish, farmed tuna that comes from australia after we ship the fish meal from africa/europe to australia… and they will still eat tuna sandwiches, tuna sushi, you name it. same with physical education, nobody cares as long as there is no money involved. only ‘education’ you can give them is fining them.

    “happily divides their garbage as required.” bullshit. at least here, they do it because otherwise they get a hefty fine… if you ask them they think it is a BS policy. so if you want to transform the system to physical activity you would have to fine them/enforce it onto them. fine with me 😉

  3. #3 Dawn
    June 30, 2010

    Unfortunately, most camps don’t include a lot of outdoor activity anymore. I was surprised when my kids were in some camps and they were inside most of the day.

    The fears of parents are greater than they should be. See the blog “Free Range Kids” and you’ll be amazed how frightened parents are today to just let their kids play outside in their own yards unless mom or dad is out with them. (And yeah, my kids were free range…we had a park 3 houses down from ours where my then 7 year old went regularly to play. Usually alone but sometimes she met up with another child or more. Both kids walked to and home from school – 1 mile or more, and rode their bikes or walked to friends houses unless they were too far away – we don’t have sidewalks on a lot of the streets and the streets are narrow and windy so I would end up driving them to some houses.)

  4. #4 staceyjwsolar
    July 4, 2010

    I was just going to mention “Free Range Kids” in response to #2. FRK is a response to the sad fact that most kids’ activities that were normal for our generation, are considered too dangerous for our own kids. Obesity is a direct result of this current trend; putting safety before everything else tends to trap our kids in sedentary activities with too much supervision.

    About #2- There is NO REASON why we can’t allow our appropriately aged kids ride their bikes around all day and be back at night! It’s good for kids and parents alike, we both need time to ourselves that is unstructured. As for safety, in the US, children are safer NOW than when I was growing up (born 1976), and most kids had the ability to free roam back then.

    The US crime rate and every other indicator of danger is down to pre-70’s levels. A good example of an overblown fear that makes parents stifle kids freedom is stranger kidnappings (opposed to a custodial cases). 115 kids are snatched per year (!), a fourth as much as the # of people being hit by lightening (400 or so)! The media hypes every accident now, so it SEEMS dangerous, when it is not. We are suffocating today’s kids, for their “own good”.

    After reading this article, linked from “Free Range Kids”:
    I was curious to see how much freedom I had as a kid. So I mapped my summertime, daily bike routes. I distinctly remember my first long ride: in 5th grade I went to Dairy Queen with a friend. It was just over 4 miles each way, through suburbia, after which it became common to ride to see friends as far as 6 miles away. I only stopped biking when I got a car- and all that driving made me gain weight!

    Funny thing is, I was NOT an active kid, but generally lazy preferring to sleep in and lay around a reading books. I never enjoyed sports or participated in structured physical activity. Riding a bike 8+ miles a day was a means to an end, and this is an important thing to remember when encouraging activity. ***Most people, like myself, don’t enjoy physical activity for its own sake.*** We are most active when there is a reason for it, a goal, and end point (ie, the friends house). Kids need time to roam, permission to visit friends on their own or go to a park/beach/pool without parents. These are the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle. Just adding a game of baseball to a day camp is not the same, and won’t encourage an healthy lifestyle for most kids. You can even see this with adults- empty suburban residential streets vs busy city blocks- who wants to walk to nowhere?

    A sedentary life style so young is more dangerous overall than kidnappings and crime in most places. When looking at ways to stop the childhood obesity epidemic, these trends should be considered along with ways to build activity into daily life. It’s easy to do, with the right attitude- start by NOT driving your kids to their friends houses, they will find a way there. Have them walk to school, where possible. Send the kids off to a local park. Just look around, you CAN find opportunities for meaningful activity in everyday life!

    (I’ve been a lurker for quite a while, but I couldn’t resist this post)

  5. #5 BenA
    July 7, 2010

    I live in the middle of some well to-do suburbs and the backyard play structures are staggering… but there are NEVER any kids on them. It drives me nuts. It’s one of the things we try actively to avoid with our kids.

    We just almost literally lock them outside for hours at a time. Sure I panic about my kids being outside from time to time… I can’t help it.. it’s drilled into me by the media… but I talk myself out of it.

  6. #6 Passerby
    July 7, 2010

    >The US crime rate and every other indicator of danger is down to pre-70’s levels.

    No, at least not here in the US, if we’re talking violent crime, the type most likely to affect kids. The population has nearly doubled since then, and we’re in the midst of an ongoing and severe (jobless) recession. Crime stats are down for homicide and property crime; there may be a statistical reporting and other factors reason for this decreasing trend for crime (a neuro-toxicological catalyst is mentioned in this Wiki page, but has not much discussed otherwise).


    The real issue is that most parents work through the summer, with *maybe* a paid vacation – many employers are asking for a combination of more unpaid overtime for salaried folk, shorter work weeks for hourlies and/or reduced paid personal leave to offset tight budgets.

    The conundrum is what to do with your unsupervised kid. Camp for 3 months is NOT an option. Many cash-strapped communities no longer leave the pools open to just kids all day. Instead, they offset operational costs by offering swimming classes and restrict open pool hours accordingly.

    If it’s hot and the kids are overweight or obese, they’re probably either heat-sensitive or heat-intolerant. Unless they are enrolled in some sort of supervised activity (which means cash outlay for parents on increasingly tight budgets), they’re more likely to be playing games with friends on computers or computerized game toys.

    Our Parks and Rec department here, for example, charges a minimum of $150-225 for 2 hours a day of supervised physical (sport or creative play) activity for 3 days/week, 6 weeks. Per kid.

    For many of us supervised play was for other ‘rich’ kids, who also had expensive bikes, water and snow skies, and paid lessons in a variety of sports or fine arts activities. Later on, these same kids got cars.

    We had unsupervised chores to attend to from the age of 8-10 onward, and that kept us plenty busy and physically active. No ‘play’ component, unless you counted going to the public library to tote home a load of books as ‘play’.

  7. #7 seattle chiropractor
    December 27, 2010

    The best way to get your kids to be more active is to model an active lifestyle. Turn off the tv, the cell phone and the computer and go outside to throw a ball, ride a bike or climb a mountain. Walk to the grocery store, neighborhood pool, restaurant, library or wherever else you go and you will incorporate fitness into your life and your kids’ lives.

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