Let’s get physical

Encouraging more activity for children under five and minimizing their screen time can have long-lasting health benefits

When Valerie Carson was growing up, physical activity was a huge part of her childhood—being outside in the snow, bike riding and lots of unstructured play.

That love of playing outdoors laid the groundwork for her career as a researcher, with much of her work now focused on physical activity and sedentary behaviour among children under five years of age.

Physical activity in the very young has been understudied and Carson wanted to fill that research gap. “People just generally assume that young children are active and that the research focus should be on older children and adolescents,” explains Carson. “But in fact, young children might not be as active as we think they are, especially with screens becoming a major part of their lives.”

While developing the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years, Carson and other researchers found that only 13 per cent of preschoolers in Canada met the guidelines, which provide recommendations for physical activity, screen time, and sleep.

Regular physical activity and minimal screen time is crucial, even in the very young. “Behaviour patterns formed at this very young age can continue over time. If a child is inactive at four, they are much more likely to be inactive when they are eight and 15. If we can start them on a healthy trajectory early in life it can have long-lasting effects.”

Inactivity is a risk factor for chronic diseases that affect many Canadians, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. These diseases, says Carson, don’t typically present themselves until adulthood, but “we know there is a progression.” Unhealthy behaviours, even at a young age, can contribute to the later development of chronic diseases, she explains. “So primary prevention is a big part of what we are doing, in addition to trying to stimulate children’s social, emotional and mental well-being.”

She hopes her research findings will lead to guideline updates and effective health promotion programs and interventions for families and child care settings, within five to 10 years.

Carson has applied her research findings to her own life—modeling the active lifestyle she enjoyed as a child to her two-and-a-half year old daughter. “It’s been a goal of my husband and I to ensure that we are meeting the guidelines. Knowing the research, I am always trying to get us outside.”

Valerie Carson’s research has been supported by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.