Just the Facts

About Physical Activity

Daily opportunities to be activePhoto of boy walking by couch

Children should be physically active each day as part of play, games, sports, active transportation, recreation and physical education.  This includes outside activity that encourages children to explore a natural environment and take risks.

Physical activity should also take place with family, in childcare, in school, and in the community.

Here are ways that you can help children to meet their physical activity needs:

  1. Unstructured physical activity (also known as child-led activity or free play):
    This is when children play freely on their own or with other children. The role of the adult is to watch or supervise at a level that is appropriate to the age and developmental stage of the child.  Adults can join in with the child during unstructured physical activity but the adult is not leading the activity.
  2. Structured physical activity (also known as adult-led activity or facilitated play):
    This is when children participate in organized activities that are led by an adult. Examples include soccer practice, dance class or a volunteer-led after school activity.

It is important that children participate in all different types of activities to meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines.

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines

The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology has released Physical Activity Guidelines that give information on the types, intensity, and frequency of physical activity needed to promote good health.

Early Years (0-4 years)

  • Infants (less than 1 year) should be physically active several times daily – particularly through interactive floor-based play.
  • Toddlers (1-2 years) and preschoolers (3-4 years) should accumulate at least 180 minutes of physical activity at any intensity spread throughout the day, including:
    • A variety of activities in different environments.
    • Activities that develop movement skills.
    • Progression toward at least 60 minutes of energetic play by 5 years of age.

Children (5-11 years)

  • Children should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily. This should include:
    • Vigorous-intensity activities at least 3 days per week.
    • Activities that strengthen muscle and bone at least 3 days per week.
    • More daily physical activity provides greater health benefits.

For more information on the Guidelines, visit www.csep.ca/guidelines.

Source: Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). (2012). Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years 0-4.

Source: Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). (2016). 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth.

Did you know?

According to the ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth (2016), 70% of 3-4 year olds in Canada are meeting the daily recommendation of at least 180 minutes of physical activity at any intensity. However, only 14% of 5-11 year olds are meeting the daily recommendation of at least 60 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity.

For fun games and activities to get children moving, visit our Activities page.

Source: ParticipACTION. (2016). Are Canadian Kids too Tired to Move? The 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.

Benefits of Physical Activity

Physical activity plays a big role in physical development and health, but did you know there are many other benefits of physical activity?

Physical DevelopmentPhoto of girl chasing bubbles

Physical activity:

  • Helps a child grow
  • Builds and maintains a healthy heart, lungs, bones, muscles and joints
  • Fosters the development of motor skills including fundamental movement skills
  • Gives energy during the day
  • Helps a child sleep better at night
  • Enhances flexibility
  • Develops good posture
  • Improves coordination and balance
  • Helps achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Improves fitness levels

Emotional Development

Physical activity:

  • Provides enjoyment and makes children feel happy
  • Reduces anxiety and relieves stress
  • Prevents, reduces, and helps manage depression
  • Helps build confidence and positive self-esteem
  • Improves the ability to deal with stress

Social Development

Physical activity:

  • Provides opportunities to practice and develop social skills
  • Encourages interactions with others
  • Helps develop friendships
  • Encourages healthy family engagement
  • Teaches life skills
  • Promotes leadership skills
  • Develops confidence
  • Helps nurture imagination and creativity
  • Promotes positive behaviour

Cognitive Development

Physical activity:

  • Enhances the development of brain function
  • Improves problem-solving abilities
  • Increases attention and concentration
  • Improves memory
  • Enhances creativity
  • Increases readiness to learn
  • Improves learning and academic performance

The path to a healthy lifestyle

Early physical activity also helps to establish healthy physical activity habits. By laying a strong foundation with fun and positive experiences, children will be more inclined to stay physically active as they get older. And if they stay active, they are more likely to live healthy, happy lives.

Source: Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). (2012). Canadian Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines Handbook.

Source: ParticipACTION. (n.d.). Follow the Guidelines, Reap the Rewards.

Source: Timmons, B. W., LeBlanc, A. G., Carson, V., Connor Gorber, S., Dillman, C., Janssen, I., … & Tremblay, M. S. (2012). Systematic review of physical activity and health in the early years (aged 0–4 years). Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 37(4), 773-792.

About Physical Literacy

The International Physical Literacy Association defines physical literacy as “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.”

Physical literacy plays an interesting role in physical activity. Physical activity helps to develop physical literacy and in the long term, physical activity is promoted and enriched by physical literacy.

If children are physically literate, they have the ability to demonstrate a variety of movement skills with confidence and competence across a wide range of physical activities.

Fundamental movement skills

Fundamental movement skills are the building blocks of physical literacy. Just like literacy has the ABCs and numeracy has the 123s, physical literacy has smaller components that form the foundation for a lifetime of movement.

Fundamental movement skills fall into 3 general categories: body control, locomotion, and object manipulation.

Body control is being able to balance the body while stationary or while moving. Skills in this category include stretching, twisting, turning, pushing, pulling, swinging, and dodging.

Locomotion is being able to transport the body from one place to another. Basic skills in this category include crawling, walking, running, jumping, hopping, skipping, galloping, and sliding.

Object manipulation is being able to influence and control an object such as a ball. Basic skills in this category include the underhand throw, overhand throw, catching, kicking, striking, and volleying.

Confidence in movement

By developing fundamental movement skills and physical literacy, children develop the confidence to be physically active, whether through recreational games or competitive sports and activities.

Without physical literacy, research has shown that children tend to withdraw from physical activity and turn to more inactive and unhealthy choices during their leisure time.

Physical inactivity is associated with lower school grades, reduced confidence, lower self-esteem, poor social skills, and chronic health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers.

Encouraging physical literacy

Children develop physical literacy when they have lots of opportunities to play and experience different movement skills.

Both unstructured play, where children can explore on their own, and structured activities, where children receive formal instruction to improve their skills, develop physical literacy.

Here are some ways you can help children develop physical literacy:

  • Try new activities and movement skills.
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for practice.
  • Be active in different places (on the ground, in the air, in the water and on snow/ice).
  • Choose activities that suit your child’s skills and development.

Source: Canada’s Physical Literacy Consensus Statement. (2015).

Active Outdoor Play

Active outdoor play is an important component of physical activity for children. It involves providing opportunities for children to play outside, experiencing the elements, learning about their environment, and naturally exploring different types of movement such as running, jumping, climbing, and building without being prompted.

Photo of girl on rope climberActive outdoor play is often referred to as risky play. It is important to note that risky play does not mean dangerous play that is unsafe.  Instead, it is giving children the freedom to evaluate challenges, test their own physical limits, and develop their confidence.

Examples include climbing trees, digging in dirt, and jumping in puddles.  These activities are thrilling and exciting to children and lead to curiosity, creativity, and problem solving.

Accordingly, don’t be afraid to encourage your children to explore outdoor and risky play. It will help them to understand their physical limits, manage challenges, and develop their self-confidence.

Source: 2015 Position statement on active outdoor play.

Research on Outdoor Play

According to the ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth (2015), when children are outside, they move more, sit less and play longer which leads to improved motor skill development and social skills, lower levels of obesity and increased overall physical activity. When children are outside, they are more active and take more steps than when indoors. For more information about active outdoor play, and its benefits, please read the Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play.

Source: ParticipACTION. (2015). The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors. The 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.

Loose Parts Philosophy

Loose parts is a term that was developed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970s.  It represents a philosophy of play that is open-ended and encourages creativity, exploration and problem solving.

Loose parts are materials that can be manipulated in many different ways.  They can be moved, carried, mixed together, sorted and assembled.  They can be used alone or combined with other loose parts.  There are no directions for loose parts play.

Loose parts play has positive connections to physical activity levels in children because they are constantly moving.  Studies have shown that children who have access to loose parts materials, like those below, are more active than those who play on in a fixed play environment, like a playground.

Here are some examples of loose parts materials:

In a natural play area:

  • Water
  • Sand
  • Dirt
  • Sticks
  • Branches
  • Logs
  • Grasses
  • Leaves
  • Flowers
  • Pine cones
  • Bark
  • Feathers
  • Rocks
In a playground:

  • Balls
  • Hula hoops
  • Jump ropes
  • Tires
  • Sand
  • Water
  • Rocks
  • Buckets
  • Digging tools
  • Chalk
  • Scarves
In an indoor environment:

  • Blocks or other building materials
  • Measuring devices
  • Blankets
  • Water
  • Sand
  • Sensory materials
  • Recycled materials
    (paper tubes, cardboard,
    plastic bottles, cardboard cartons)
  • Dramatic play materials
  • Play cars, animals and people
  • Art materials

Source: Pennsylvania State University. (2016). Loose Parts: What does this mean?

Sedentary Behaviour and Inactivity

Photo of girl doing yogaWe need to be active to be healthy. However, research is now showing us just how unhealthy it is to be sedentary.

Sedentary behaviour is sitting for long, continuous periods without moving. It’s unhealthy for anyone to be sedentary for long periods each day, but especially children.

Typical examples of children being sedentary are when they are:

  • Sitting for long periods, like in a stroller or classroom
  • Riding in a bus or car
  • Watching television
  • Playing video games
  • Playing on computers, tablets and phones

Sedentary is more than just being inactive

It is important to note that sedentary behaviour is not exactly the same as physical inactivity. Children can be physically active according to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, but still be considered sedentary if they spend their remaining waking hours being inactive.

For example, a 5 year old may play soccer for an hour after school each day, but would still be considered sedentary for a large portion of their day if he or she sits most of the day at school and then in front of the television at home for a large portion of the evening.

Sedentary behaviour has been directly linked to numerous physical and mental health problems. The good news? These can be avoided or reduced with regular physical activity and movement throughout the day.

Source: Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). (2012). Canadian Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines Handbook.

Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines

The Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines were created to help adults limit the time children spend watching television, playing video and computer games, and other sedentary behaviours.

Guidelines for the Early Years (0-4 years)

  • For healthy growth and development, minimize the time children spend being sedentary during waking hours. This includes prolonged sitting or being restrained (e.g., stroller, high chair) for more than one hour at a time.
  • For those under 2 years, screen time (e.g., TV, computer, electronic games) is not recommended.
  • For children 2-4 years, limit screen time to less than one hour per day. And remember, less is better.

Guidelines for Children (5-11 years)

  • Minimize the time children spend being sedentary each day.
  • Limit recreational screen time to no more than 2 hours per day. Less time is associated with additional health benefits.
  • Limit sedentary (motorized) transport, extended sitting, and time spent indoors throughout the day.

For more information on the Guidelines, visit www.csep.ca/guidelines.

Source: Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). (2012). Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for the Early Years 0-4.

Source: Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). (2016). 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth.

Did you know?

According to the ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth (2016), only 15% of 3-4 year olds in Canada are meeting the guidelines for sedentary activity. Children in this age group spend an average of 7.5 hours per day being sedentary during their waking hours. Sedentary behaviour increases children’s risk of developing chronic diseases, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some forms of cancer, and mental health problems.

Source: ParticipACTION. (2016). Are Canadian Kids too Tired to Move? The 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.

Impacts of Inactivity

Sitting for long periods of time is not healthy.Photo of baby on blanket

Sedentary behaviour and inactivity increase the odds for a child to develop chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer, along with mental health problems.

For most children, excessive screen time is the main cause of sedentary behaviour. This includes TV, computers, video games, tablets and smartphones. It makes no difference if children are viewing educational content or playing learning games, it is still screen time, and it still counts as sedentary behaviour.

Impacts on health and development

Excessive screen time has been linked to:

  • Obesity – the more television a child watches, the greater his or her risk is of becoming overweight.
  • Irregular sleep – the more television children watch, the more likely they are to have trouble falling asleep or to have an irregular sleep schedule. Sleep loss, in turn, can lead to fatigue which also leads to decreased physical activity.
  • Behavioural problems – children who spend more than two hours a day watching television or using a computer are more likely to have emotional, social, and attention problems.
  • Less time for play – excessive screen time leaves less time for active, creative play.
  • Impacts to brain structure and functioning – excessive screen time changes the areas of the brain responsible for emotional processing, attention, decision making, and cognitive control.

Reducing the impacts and risks

To reduce the impacts and risks associated with sedentary behaviour, adults should make sure children have frequent activity breaks in their sedentary time. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get children to stand up for activities where they would normally sit (e.g., arts and crafts).
  • Set a timer and have children stretch every hour.
  • Use energizers throughout the day such as short active games or active songs.

These activities will decrease sedentary time, help children to burn off excess energy and help with focus and concentration.

Mayo Clinic. (2016). Children and TV: Limiting you child’s screen time.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email