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Why Active Living Initiatives Do Not
Necessarily Address Obesity Issues

A landmark University of Alberta study, analyzing a sample of over 275,000 individuals, has found that when it comes to participation in physical activity, one size does not fit all.

"Our study uncovered some definite trends and preferences when deciding how and if a person wants to be physically active," says Brad Humphreys, an economics professor at the University of Alberta. "It is clear that different genders, ethnicities and income levels have very diverse influences and choices when it comes to being physically active."

The study, co-authored with U of A professor Jane Ruseski, looked at a wide range of factors, including income, education and ethnicity, that influence whether a person decides to be physically active, as well as their time spent being active. It also examined the impact of government spending on parks and recreation on an individual's decision to participate in physical activity and sports.

Walking Most Preferred

At a 57 per cent participation rate, walking was found to be the most common form of physical activity undertaken for exercise. Results suggest that participation in walking increases with age, indicating that programs aimed at promoting walking for exercise could appeal to older populations, says Humphreys.

"Choosing walking as the main form of physical activity may reflect the relatively low cost of this activity," says Humphreys. "Walking can be done in almost any setting under almost any condition without needing specialized equipment or facilities." Although walking may be the preferred choice for physical activity, many experts are not convinced on the effectiveness for health. "Walking is not the best form of exercise to get in shape" said Susan McHilley of "More evidence is being presented every year which clearly shows that although walking is a benefical form of physical activity, the intensity and duration are critical to enhance health and prevent disease" she added.

It was found that participation in all types of physical activities increased when a person had a higher level of income and that people with a post-secondary education participated in outdoor recreation activities more than high school graduates. As well, females were less likely to participate in outdoor recreation activities, group sports and individual sports than males.

"Compared to men, we found that females spent an average of 444 minutes fewer per week doing outdoor recreation, 108 minutes fewer spent on group sports and 74 minutes fewer on individual sports," says Humphreys. "This can be explained by child-care responsibilities and the fact that women spend almost an hour more on household activities compared to men per week."

"Our results have important implications for the design of government interventions aimed at increasing physical activity," says Humphreys. "When developing these programs, we must take into account North America's diverse population. A program that increases participation in one population, say older adults and retirees, in a particular state, may not have the same effect on young married minority couples in another state." That's where active living needs to address a wide range of groups to positively affect the health of the entire population.

Active Living Fails To Prevent Child Obesity

Although decades of government implementations have attempted to resolve the growing issue of inactivity, most have failed. Active living initiatives have only lead to poor results and limitations for children as they age. The limitations of such approaches to combat childhood obesity may also, in part, have contributed to the problem over the years. Motor skills such as speed, strength and power which are integrated with cardiovascular abilities have consistently shown to improve long-term health in both children and adults. Yet an extremely large percentage of school curriculums, including those encompassed around active living, fail to properly address or incorporate effective training methodologies into their structure.

Simply put, schools which only implement generalized active living programs do not instill and develop the individual abilities in children that are necessary to maintain good physical health throughout their lifetime. Governments have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into these programs to increase physical activity among youth and the general public. Despite these government initiatives, and since the inception of such programs, children are more obese today than ever before. Culture is a huge factor, and physical activity is only one component of the "get healthy equation", something active living advocates still need to wrap their heads around. But despite lifestyle, physical activity curriculums are just not giving children the transferable skills they need in the first place.

Regardless of any inclusion criteria assessed, children that graduate from social and active living programs have extremely little or no comprehension of these essential mental and motor skills that should be ingrained in their daily lives. Although most agree that such programs may increase a child's overall knowledge of diverse activities to increase physical activity, the statistical data indicates that children do not transfer this knowledge (actively or otherwise) into their late teens and early adulthood to positively affect their health.

Active living programs also do not correlate with gross demographic variables like income and occupation, which are influential indicators on physical activity into early adulthood and beyond. In addition, there is no scientific dynamical evidence on the long-term health benefits of these programs. The dynamical relationship between leisure and health has never really been studied due to the enormous quantities of variables involved. However, we don't really need the studies or an analysis to validate the long-term results. We have the first hand evidence from the plethora of programs implemented in the 70's 80's and 90's. We know what happened to the majority of these children and their behaviors as they grew into adults.

The majority of research touting the benefits of active living to prevent child obesity has been either too small or inconclusive. This story (from the inception to termination) for such a multitude of programs, has been told for decades. Unfortunately, each successor has continued to either ignore or poorly address the changing needs of children and teens for almost 40 years. The truth is that the big health picture is bleak for children if more than 90% of schools do not improve their current programming.

This is the reality…governments perpetually make the same mistakes in physical education at the cost of children's health, and you don't have to look far to see the evidence. The obesity rates continue to soar every decade, in every state and province, in part due to the short comings of Physical Activity programs that are not progressive and have trouble co-existing with the technological era and fast-paced work environments in our society. This is part of the reason why more than a very large percentage of both Canadians and Americans do not exercise, contributing to the growing obesity epidemic which is presently costing North America hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

So what's the solution? There is no simple answer, but the focus must remain on progressive programs that advance children's health. Curriculums designed to create exercise environments that only mesh with sport or competition have isolated several groups of children who are uncomfortable, uncoordinated or lack the athletic ability to enjoy these events. Active living programs are also typically designed around involving multiple individuals to achieve a specific physical activity, which creates a mindset that a buddy system or group is always necessary to engage in these events. Moreover, a plethora of school-based programs still emphasize non-locomotor and manipulative skills for physical education which are very poor indicators in maintaining long-term health. Effective locomotor skills that allow children to maintain and increase their physical activity levels on an individual basis are the complement so desperately needed in our physical education system.

The day we better equip children with the critical tools, knowledge and skills that are transferable into their teenage and adult years, is the day we will begin to reverse the epidemic of child obesity.


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