According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the prevalence of overweight and obese children in the U.S. and Canada from 1985 to 2003 has increased at a higher rate than among adults. Researchers speculate that one factor in this rise among children may be a decline in physical activity.

A look at physical education (PE) data from Canada lends support to this view, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Among public high school students in Ontario, the percentage enrolled in PE classes decreased from 70.3 percent in 1999 to 60.3 percent in 2003. That decrease is notable because, among those still enrolled in PE classes, there was no evidence of a decline in vigorous physical activity in the classes. Female students, in particular, as well as students in higher grades, showed declining rates of PE class enrollment and physical activity.

Thirty years ago, daily physical education was a standard, required course in most junior and senior high schools in the U.S. and Canada. After some stretching and basic calisthenics, children participated in various aerobic sports activities. Once a year in the U.S., students were required to take the President’s Physical Fitness Test which provided measured outcomes without requiring any minimum level of performance.

Throughout the late 1970s, the 80s and the 90s, as local schools faced mounting budgetary problems, many districts cut back on “non-essential” programs including PE. Schools saved money on gym teachers, equipment, locker room space, showers and utilities. In the U.S., it became common that even students in scheduled PE classes would not be required to exercise vigorously because showers and towels were no longer provided. A strong attitude against PE developed, particularly among female students.

For some girls, the rising popularity of women’s sports has renewed an interest in physical activity, but that interest is nowhere near as broad as among boys, which itself, has declined. Meanwhile, the soaring popularity of video games, especially among boys, has undermined physical activity after school for children of all ages. This trend is also fueled by the cultural transformation from one-earner to two-earner families and the resulting effort of working parents to protect children by encouraging them, from an early age, to play indoors after they come home from school.

“We’re seeing the unintended consequence of a generation of children growing up with less and less encouragement toward routine physical activity,” says Mary Jane MacArthur, the LHSFNA Health Promotion Division Director.  “As we know, the habits of our childhoods carry over into our adult lives, and each generation of Americans and Canadians is more obese than its predecessor. However, no matter how we were trained as children, as adults we can take control and change our lifestyles. And if parents change their eating habits and find ways to work more exercise into their lives, they will certainly influence their children to do the same. The downward spiral can be reversed.”

This month, the Health Promotion Division is unveiling its newest program, Nutrition and Fitness for Laborers [link to other story in this issue], designed to help Laborers and their family members break the cycle. Additional fitness and nutrition resources are available through the LHSFNA online publications catalogue.

[Steve Clark]