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The Verdict is in: Canadians
Are Fat, Sick and Weak

A multitude of seductive video screens and a lack of healthy entertainment alternatives has led to a profound increase in obesity and decline in fitness levels across Canada over the past quarter-century, a new nationwide survey reveals.

The proportion of Canadians with bloated waistlines has ballooned as much as fivefold as our strength and endurance slipped precariously, according to the most comprehensive study of health and weight in this country since 1981.

The two reports from the Canadian Health Measures Survey, released Wednesday by Statistics Canada, have experts worried these twin perils could send cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer rates off the scales.

"There are many factors influencing this, and almost all are influencing it in a bad way," says Mark Tremblay, who co-authored the reports. "The multitude of the (viewing) screens we have available, the seductiveness of what they provide and allow us to do in a climate-controlled environment close to the pantry – it's easy and we're in control."

Experts say the stark findings – the report on children and youth states "Children are taller, heavier, fatter and weaker than in 1981" – should bring home the message once and for all that society needs to eat better, move more and spend less time on the couch.

Children growing up today will reach an unhealthy level of fitness faster than ever before, says Brian Timmons, professor of pediatrics at McMaster's Children's Exercise & Nutrition Centre.

"You are cutting years off your life by starting off with lower fitness levels," he says.

Among other things, the survey found:

About 17 per cent of Canadian children were overweight and 9 per cent were obese.

The proportion of boys ages 15 to 19 classified as overweight or obese rose from 14 per cent in 1981 to 31 per cent in 2009. Among teen girls the number rose from 14 per cent to 25 per cent.

Only 38 per cent of adults were at a healthy weight, while 62 per cent were overweight or obese.

Among those ages 60 to 69, about 65 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men were at high risk for health problems.

The proportion of adults 20 to 39 who had dangerously large waist circumferences quadrupled among males since 1981, to 21 per cent, and rose fivefold among the women, to 31 per cent.

The survey, by StatsCan and the Public Health Agency of Canada, involved 5,600 Canadians from ages 6 to 79. Data was collected at 15 sites across the country, including in Toronto.

Researchers conducted in-home interviews, took blood pressure, height, weight and body measurements, including waistlines, and asked participants to perform standard fitness tests. Results were collected between March 2007 and February 2009.

Previous surveys that relied on Canadians to report their height, weight and nutrition and fitness habits are considered less reliable. Researchers say the data will be used as a national baseline for a variety of health concerns, such as obesity and high blood pressure.

Tremblay, says there has been an abject failure on the part of health policy-makers to provide appealing alternatives to lure Canadians off their backsides and away from our growing addiction to flat-screen televisions, DVDs, computers and portable video players.

"We need to put structures in place to bring (sedentary activities) back to a right balance," he says. "Sadly, I don't think that's where we've stepped up."

Tremblay says supervised playgrounds, increased physical education programs and major government investments in sports programs and facilities could help get children and adults onto their feet.

But what's needed most urgently, he says, is an all-out, government-backed marketing campaign that will impress on Canadians just how out of shape most of them are.

"Many people do not see themselves as part of this problem, yet the statistics bear out that almost all of us are," he says.

Ken Allison, professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said parents can be part of the solution by enforcing strict guidelines that limit a child's "screen time" to two hours a day. They can also lobby schools and their community to create more opportunities for physical activity for young people.

Research by Allison has shown the number of Ontario students taking part in sports and other physical activities has dropped over the last five years, as have intramural or inter-school programs in schools.

Timmons suggests kids be given more time for play and unstructured activity, when their natural tendencies are toward short, rigorous bouts of physical activity.

The usual suspects, such as fast food and video games, have played a part in Canada's fitness crisis, says survey co-author Margot Shields. But, she said technology in general may be a factor. "We have a lot more modern conveniences now."

January 20, 2010

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