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The Globe and Mail

Canada to ease physical-fitness guidelines

Skaters take to the ice at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto Tuesday, January 4, 2011.

Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail/darren calabrese The Globe and Mail

Canadians won't have to sweat as much to meet national physical-activity standards after experts determined that health benefits can be achieved with less effort than demanded by the existing targets that few of us are meeting.

Even though Canada's guidelines are being softened, experts say more activity is best in almost every case. And some hope that, by making the goals easier to reach, more Canadians will be persuaded to get moving.

"We have become extremely sedentary and I believe that is one of those reasons why you are going to see those guideline numbers come down," said Kelly Murumets, the president of Participaction, the Canadian agency created to inspire fitness that was consulted in the creation of the new guidelines.

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With "even just minimal amounts of physical activity, there are physical health benefits" because the baseline of Canadian fitness is so low, she said. "That's a very poor statement on our society at this point in time."

Only 12 per cent of Canadian children and less than half of Canadian adults are meeting the existing standards, Ms. Murumets said. "It truly is alarming," she said.

The Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology, the central Canadian body for fitness research, will recommend on Jan. 24 that the physical activity guidelines for children, adults and older people in Canada be revised to harmonize with those set by the World Health Organization and other major developed countries like the United States, Australia and Britain, Ms. Murumets said.

That would cut the recommended amount of active time for adults from 60 minutes daily to 150 minutes weekly. Children, who are currently being told to increase their activity gradually to 90 minutes per day, would be told they need to be active for an hour. And people over 65, who are now being told to be active for 30 to 60 minutes per day would be told to do 150 minutes of moderate activity a week.

The new standards will be accompanied by recommendations for the maximum amount of time that should be spent engaging in sedentary activities like watching television.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is expected to accept the new guidelines, which were determined by international experts to be the minimum amount of physical activity required to promote good health. And like the old guidelines, they certainly won't provide the type of workout used to train elite athletes

But, if Canadians in large numbers opt to follow them, experts say, the overall physical condition of society would dramatically improve. There are 24 different diseases ranging from diabetes to heart ailments to osteoporosis that are linked in some way to inertia.

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Mark Tremblay, who runs the exercise lab at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and who helped to create the new guidelines, said setting targets that people do not see as achievable can be counterproductive.

"If you are completely sedentary and you set a target that is way off in the distance then perhaps you give up before you even start," Dr. Tremblay said.

And the changes are not as dramatic as they might seem at first glance, he said. For children, as an example, the current recommendation is that they progress from 30 minutes a day of activity to 90 minutes a day. So, to set a recommendation of 60 minutes a day is not necessarily a reduction, he said.

Cameron Blimkie, an expert on children's physical fitness who teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, was not involved in writing the Canadian guidelines but helped craft those written for the Centers for Disease Control in the United States.

If the Canadian standards are rewritten to match those of other countries, said Dr. Blimkie, it will be "a reasonable attempt to encourage, rather than discourage, a population that isn't currently meeting the established recommendations to maybe move closer to meeting them."

How Canadian guidelines compare

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The current Canadian physical activity guidelines are about to be updated to match those set by the World Health Organization. Here is a comparison of the two standards:

Children (five to 17 years old)

Current Canadian guidelines

Children who are sedentary are encouraged to start being active for 30 minutes a day and gradually increase to 90 minutes a day. Moderate activities such as skating, bike riding and outdoor play should be combined with vigorous activities like running and soccer. There should be a mix of endurance activities like jumping and swimming, flexibility activities like gymnastics and dancing, and strength activities like climbing.

World Health Organization guidelines

Children and young people should take part in moderate to vigorous physical activity at for least 60 minutes each day. Most physical activity should be aerobic, which means activities like walking, biking, skating and running that move the body's large muscles for a sustained period of time. Activities that strengthen muscle and bone should be performed at least three times per week.

Adults (18 to 64 years old)

Current Canadian guidelines

Adults are encouraged to perform a cumulative 60 minutes daily of light activities like walking, volleyball, gardening and easy stretching in increments of at least 10 minutes each. Or they can do moderate activities like brisk walking, biking, swimming and dancing for 30 minutes four days a week. Endurance activities like lawn-mowing, bike riding and walking should be done four to seven days a week.

World Health Organization guidelines

Do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of the two, throughout the week. Aerobic activity should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes each. Muscle-strengthening activities should be done involving major muscle groups on two or more days a week.

Older adults (65 years and older)

Current Canadian guidelines

Moderate physical activity should be performed for a cumulative 30 to 60 minutes most days in increments of at least 10 minutes each. Increase endurance activities like walking, swimming and line dancing to four to six days a week. Do flexibility activities like stretching, bowling or tai chi daily. Do strength and balance activities like stair climbing and weight lifting two to four days a week.

World Health Organization guidelines

At least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity, or a combination of the two, should be performed throughout the week in bouts of at least 10 minutes duration. Adults of this age group with poor mobility should perform physical activity to enhance balance and prevent falls on three or more days per week. Muscle-strengthening activities should be done on two or more days a week.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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