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Why did Canadian kids place only 19th of 50 countries in this fitness test?

Three kids close-up view in colorful uniforms stand with bended knee ready to run the marathon together on the stadium

SerrNovik/Getty Images/iStockphoto

If kids from every country in the world lined up for a foot race, how do you think Canadian kids would do? Ottawa researcher Justin Lang has the answer, and it's not great.

In a study published Wednesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, an international research team examined data on how more than one million children between the ages of nine and 17 from 50 countries performed on the shuttle run test.

If you've ever been in a gym class, you probably know this test. You run back and forth between two parallel lines 20 metres apart, with less and less time to complete the run, meaning you have to go faster and faster, for as long as you can.

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"It's probably the most popular field-based test of aerobic fitness in kids, and it's used internationally across many countries," says Lang, a researcher with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at Ottawa's Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and lead author of the study.

In other words, it is a great test for comparing kids around the world.

It is also a very good test of a child's cardiorespiratory endurance, and that is something we should care very much about, Lang says.

"We know that aerobic fitness in kids is related to health. Kids with better aerobic fitness tend to be generally more healthy," he says. "And we also know that kids who are more healthy in late adolescence tend to also be healthy adults."

Canadian children ranked 19th in the study. Our neighbours to the south came in at a dismal 47th.

Who were the best performing kids in the world? Tanzania took the top spot. Next came Iceland, Estonia, Norway and Japan in the top five.

Mexico was at the bottom of the heap.

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Why didn't children in Canada do better?

"Kids in Canada probably aren't as active as kids elsewhere in the world," Lang says. "And we have problems with sedentary behaviours where kids probably sit too much."

Interestingly, the study found a clear relationship between performance on the test and income inequality. The less of a gap there is between rich and poor in a country, the better kids did.

Lang doesn't know why that correlation exists. To be fair, it is an incredibly complex question and not one the team set out to answer.

If there is one question to take away from this study, however, it's what we might be able to implement from what some other countries are doing.

"I look at this as more of a learning opportunity for Canada and other countries," Lang says. "For Canada in particular, there are countries in northern Europe that are very similar in terms of climate and their economies and culture, yet they have fitter kids than we have.… We can maybe learn from some of these countries and find out why their kids are more active and more fit than our kids."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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