Children’s Health: Parents’ fears keep kids away from simple exercise

Safety concerns have mom and dad steering their children toward structured activities rather than outdoor play

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Parents’ misconceptions about neighbourhood safety may be preventing kids from getting needed exercise, according to Ottawa researchers.

When it comes to physical activity, gone are the days when children were sent outside to burn off energy, says Dr. Anastasia Hadjiyannakis, a pediatric endocrinologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. “There is a fear and paranoia that we can’t send our kids out to play.”

She says this fear makes a lot of parents drive their children to school when the children should be walking. But Hadjiyannakis says crime statistics show neighbourhoods are no less safe now than they were 20 years ago.

Instead of simply playing in an active way outside or inside, physical activity for many Canadian children is parcelled out as dance classes, soccer practices or other organized sports activities. “We really feel we have to structure everything for children,” says Kristi Adamo, a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario child obesity research unit. “These children need active play.”

Adamo says kids might need more instruction than just “turn off the TV and go play.” They might need some guidance or suggestions about what to do. They could even help with chores around the house.

Hadjiyannakis adds that a family walk after dinner would be healthier than watching television. Even if the family watches television after dinner, they could try to be active during commercial breaks.

Doctors advise that parents should introduce more physical activity gradually over a number of weeks. The goal should be 90 minutes a day, according to Canada’s physical activity guide for youth.