Research | Queen’s University Canada

Finding the formula for physically active kids

Finding the formula for physically active kids

Q&A with Ian Janssen

Are you sitting comfortably to read this? Naturally. Are you reading it on yet another electronic screen? Probably. Should you get up and move around more? Absolutely.

It is hard to avoid worries that we are becoming an overweight, feeble society and parents worry most of all. They wonder if children are active enough to be both physically and mentally healthy, and they struggle with the best way of addressing that challenge. Amidst all these fears, however, hard data can be hard to come by. Research on this topic tends to rely largely on self-reported accounts as opposed to objective measures of how active children are.

Ian Janssen, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, is meeting this shortcoming with a mix of innovative measures and common sense analyses. Over the last four years he has undertaken three projects with the support of the Heart & Stroke Foundation, each with the aim of pinning down just how active Canadian children are, what factors affect their activity, and how their activity influences their health.

The most recent of these undertakings is the most ambitious: outfitting hundreds of Kingston-area elementary school kids with GPS-enabled smart-watch monitors they wear on their wrists and movement monitors attached at the hip. This technology takes readings every 20 seconds over 7 days, creating a huge database of recorded physical motion for Janssen and his colleagues to study.

The findings add empirical weight to many of the concerns linking a child’s environment with their activity behaviour. For example, it is possible to identify barriers that have been imposed on children and limit their movement, such as a busy street they have been forbidden to cross.

More subtle observations reveal just how much time is actually spent being active under circumstances intended to promote physical activity. Research into cardiovascular health supports a recommendation that school-aged children engage in at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day. However, Janssen cautions against assuming that an hour spent at a hockey game will suffice. As the movement monitors show, a good portion of that hour – perhaps two thirds – will be spent being sedentary during stoppages in play, while sitting on the bench, or waiting for the Zamboni to tidy up the ice.

“Usually kids have to participate in activities for three hours to get the one hour of movement time they need,” he says, noting that organized sport and physical education at school are not enough. These organized and supervised activities need to be supplemented with unorganized and unsupervised activities such as walking to school and playing outdoors.

Unfortunately, many parents do not encourage these options because they perceive them as being too dangerous. The perceived threat usually involves the possibility of being abducted by a stranger or hit by a car. Janssen argues that these perceptions are unfounded, with only one stranger kidnapping per year in Canada and seven times more children being injured as passengers in a car.

“Parents accept the risks of their kids riding in the car but don’t accept the much lower risks of being hit by a car,” he observes.

[Janssen family skating]

For Janssen, such conflicted thinking often denies children the freedom to play independently – even in their own front yard or driveway – which could make them far more physically active. Far from being a trivial loss, the denial of this play can limit the learning of how to take responsibility for one’s actions.

It also calls for parents to surrender some of their perceived responsibility for looking after their offspring, so that children can develop a sense of independence. That cannot happen when adults hover too close, refusing to stay out of arm’s reach when faced with the slightest risk of harm, such as on a playground.

“You don’t have to be right beside them,” he advises. “Get away from the play structures and give your children some freedom.”

As the father of a little boy and a little girl, Janssen appreciates how hard it is for parents to give their children this freedom. On the other hand, as an academic concerned with the well-being of our population, he would prefer to live in a country inhabited by healthy kids who face up to risk rather than sickly kids who remain forever timid.

“When parents ask me what they should do to get their kids more active, my message is usually ‘less is more,’” he concludes. “Fewer rules that limit your child’s outdoor time, the ways that they can play, and the places they can play at unsupervised.”

Q: People want to take direct action to get their children to be more active. Does that mean enrolling them in some kind of organized sport?

A: One of the challenges with organized activities is that you can only do so much. I have a five-year-old and a four-year-old and they’re in organized activities, but we can’t do it every day. You might spend 20 minutes driving there and 10 minutes getting ready for one kid to get 45 minutes of activity. Poorer families might not be able to afford it or they simply can’t get to wherever the activity takes place. Active, self-directed play helps decrease those socio-economic barriers and it’s not as much of a time-constraint issue. You can do it anytime in most places by just opening your door and going outside.

Q: Why is there not more discussion of how to encourage active play?

A: We just don’t value the kid-led activity as much as we do organization. There’s a perception out there amongst a lot of parents and caregivers that it’s got to be structured, it’s got to be organized and it’s going to be better for the child if it’s that way. The other issue is around perceptions of safety.

Q: How important is it to let children engage in unorganized, “unsafe” activities?

A: Children should learn how to engage in risky outdoor play when they’re young, so that they can better mitigate and understand the more substantive risks they encounter when they’re older. If you toboggan for the first time on a ski hill when you’re 22, bad things are likely to happen. If you start tobogganing on smaller hills when you’re young and appreciate how to mitigate the risks, then when you are confronted with risky situations when you’re older, you’ll better understand what you shouldn’t do.

Learn more about Dr. Janssen's research