Climate change is a new hurdle for children’s physical activity levels in Canada


The ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, the most comprehensive assessment of children’s physical activity in Canada, recently gave the country a D+ in overall physical activity.

While this grade is better than the D grade given in 2022, there is still much room for improvement. The D+ resulted from only 39 per cent of children and youth in Canada meeting the recommendation of at least 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous — or heart-pumping — physical activity.

The report, which we were involved in, synthesizes and shares the latest research on physical activity, with the goal of influencing behaviours and policies to get children living in Canada moving more and sitting less.

A team of 17 leading experts in children’s physical activity, from across Canada and sectors — including academia, the government and non-government organizations — that developed the report using the best available data from multiple sources.

A chart summarizing the grades Canada was given on the 2024 ParticipACTION report.
The ParticipACTION report evaluates 14 different indicators of child and youth physical activity using a grading system ranging from A to F.

The report’s findings show there are still a significant number of barriers hindering children and youth’s ability to lead healthier, more active lifestyles in Canada.

One factor that is likely driving low physical activity rates is screen-based sedentary behaviour, which received a D grade in this year’s report. Only 27 per cent of children and youth met the recommendation of less than two hours per day recreational screen time.

Inequality and physical activity

The increased physical activity grade was not a universal increase across all equity-denied groups.

National data indicated that physical activity decreased for boys and girls during the pandemic. Thirty-seven per cent of children were active in the fall of 2020, compared to 50 per cent pre-pandemic.

However, only boys’ physical activity levels have rebounded. Fifty-two percent of boys were physically active in 2021, compared to 40 per cent in 2020. Girls remained stagnant at 35 per cent in 2021 and 2020.

Additionally, only 55 per cent of parents from the lowest-income households reported that their children participated in organized sports within the last year, compared to 86 per cent of parents from the highest-income households.

Climate change

With already low grades for children’s physical activity, climate change is emerging as a new barrier for children and youth to get more active.

For instance, the number of weather alerts in Canada is rapidly trending upwards, which could indicate an increased number of days where kids can’t play outside, recesses take place indoors, and sports and school days are cancelled.

Events like poor air quality from wildfire smoke, heat waves and heat domes are becoming more frequent during the summer, with climate scientists predicting they will only grow more intense.

A bare graph illustrating that he number of weather alterst in Canada increase from 2014 to 2023.
Weather alerts in Canada have increased since 2014.
(Environment Canada)

Children, compared to adults, are also more vulnerable to climate-related weather events based on their smaller airways and need to breathe more rapidly, which could put them at greater risk of inhaling more pollutants and subsequent lung diseases.

Beyond the risks, physical activity can help planetary health and resilience for children. For instance, physical activities such as active transport and gardening can provide benefits to the individual and for planetary health.

Read more:
Keeping kids active despite the weather: Promoting outdoor activity all year round

Additionally, the more time a child spends outdoors the more active they are, and the more their connection with nature increases. This can lead to raising a generation of more pro-environmental adults. Regular physical activity can also make children more resilient to the rising temperatures associated with climate change.

Comparing grades

Examining grades across 57 countries around the world in 2022, Canada’s overall physical activity grade (D) was below average compared to other very high Human Development Index countries. Overall, 27 countries scored higher than Canada.

The two highest scoring countries were Slovenia and Sweden with an A-. Potential reasons for these higher grades included Slovenia’s strong infrastructure in the community and quality physical education in the schools.

Meanwhile, the importance of physical activity has permeated many facets of Finland’s culture. It’s strongly emphasized in education training, policies, strategies and national health promotion programs.

If Canada strives to make physical activity a cultural norm, it has much to learn from Slovenia and Finland.

Improving physical activity in Canada

The 2024 ParticipACTION Report Card makes a number of recommendations for improving physical activity in Canada, including climate change-specific recommendations. While climate change presents obstacles for children’s physical activity levels, there are ways to help children and youth stay active while building resilience.

For parents and caregivers, the report suggests replacing sedentary and screen time with indoor active play during climate events that limit outdoor play and organized sports. Caregivers can also come up with indoor activity plans and go to local recreation centres.

By facilitating discussions about climate change and engaging in outdoor activities, parents and caregivers can also reduce eco-anxiety and foster a greater understanding and appreciation of environmental conservation.

Group of elementary students doing stretching exercises in a school gym
Schools should ensure active play remains accessible at all times.

Organized sport programmers can implement heat warning systems, and develop clear, easy-to-action guidelines and policies for adverse weather events.

Schools are encouraged to implement daily physical activity policies and strategies to safeguard active play when recess is relocated indoors due to climate-related risks.

Read more:
6 actions school systems can take to support children’s outdoor learning

Governments have a role to play in investing more in active transportation infrastructure — which, in turn, would reduce carbon emissions and pollution — national and provincial parks, trails, and recreation and sport facilities to improve access to physical activity opportunities for children, youth and families.

Lastly, all sectors should invest in health promotion initiatives that consider climate change implications on physical activity among children and youth, with specific emphasis on equity-denied communities, to make physical activity more accessible for all in the face of a changing climate.


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