Getting kids active

Instilling lifelong healthy habits begins early

November 12, 2015

Canadian children and youth currently spend about 62% of their waking hours engaged in sedentary activities, and that percentage will continue to grow as they get older. Research has shown that inactive children are at a higher risk of developing a range of chronic conditions, but only 15% of  3- and 4-year-olds and 5% of 5-year-old children meet both the physical activity and sedentary behavior guidelines. Dr. Kristi Adamo and her research team from the University of Ottawa and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) are working to tackle this growing problem by improving physical activity rates in daycares.

Almost half (46%) of Canadian parents now report using childcare. Research indicates that changing health behaviours in young children is considerably easier than in older children or adults, making daycare centers an optimal place to instill healthy habits. The years a child spends in daycare are critical for growth and development and have lasting impacts on future behaviour patterns.

ABC: Activity Begins in Childhood

Dr. Kristi Adamo

(Left to right): Dr. Kristi Adamo (Principal Investigator), Patricia Burhunduli (Research Assistant), Kimberly Grattan (Research Coordinator)

Dr. Adamo, a co-founder of CHEO’s Healthy Active Living and Obesity (HALO) Research Group, conducted a randomized control trial across 18 daycares called ABC: Activity Begins in Childhood. “ABC is an intervention program that aims to increase preschool-aged children’s physical activity levels and reduce the time they spend in sedentary behaviours,” she explains. For the CIHR-funded study, Dr. Adamo designed a new daycare curriculum that incorporates activities based on fundamental movement skills in addition to the regular school-preparatory activities that daycares are traditionally known for.

With ABC, the daycare providers play an important role in overseeing and initiating children’s activities, but Dr. Adamo’s team provides additional resources and services, including training for both the providers and parents. Part of this training involves finding “incidental opportunities” to get kids moving.  “We take incidental opportunities, or routine activities, and make them fun,” says Kimberly Grattan, one of ABC’s Research Coordinators. “Whether it’s impersonating animals while getting ready to go outside or dancing to a music CD with exaggerated movements, we want the kids to make physical activity a part of their daily lives.”

ABC’s underlying premise is building self-confidence in movement and a genuine enjoyment of exercise in preschoolers. Through supportive teaching methods and exciting games, the children learn that they don’t have to be star athletes to reap the rewards of physical activity. To track progress, the study makes use of a device called an accelerometer, which is similar to a step-counting pedometer but is worn on a comfortable, stretchy belt and collects a wider range of data. It tracks both active and sedentary behaviours, which allows the researchers to paint more accurate pictures of the children’s activity levels. 

Dr. Adamo and her team have high hopes for this research. At the end of the six month program, they expect to see improvements in the children’s motor skills and daily physical activity participation levels, and a decrease in the amount of time engaged in sedentary behaviours. “The daycare providers also see the value in it,” Kimberly Grattan reflects. “And, best of all, we are always greeted with smiles and hugs from the kids. They really do enjoy the program.”

“Our daycare center strongly values physical activity,” says Susan McLeah-Hayes, a Program Coordinator from the Carleton Memorial Childcare Center. “We believe that activities like those offered by the ABC program can enhance a child’s day and improve learning.”

The team is currently conducting the final data analysis and hopes that the study will influence Canada’s daycare landscape in the future. “We hope to impact policy and curriculum development for daycare centers as well as ensure that childhood educators recognize the benefits and get the appropriate training,” says Dr. Adamo.

Active kids are happier kids

Physical activity is known to boost school performance, mood, self-esteem, energy levels and weight management. Children who develop fundamental motor skills appropriately are also more likely to enjoy and engage in physical activity as adolescents and adults.

How can your child be more physically active? Dr. Adamo, a mother of two, explains that it doesn’t have to be taxing for parents. “It doesn’t always have to be a scheduled sport or activity,” she explains. “There are very simple, fun things you can do with your kids to get them moving. It can be as easy as taking them for an after-dinner walk or bike ride, building a snowman, or simply encouraging them to engage in imaginative play outdoors.”

To learn more about ABC and Dr. Kristi Adamo’s insights on physical activity in childhood, listen to her podcast.

The Carleton Memorial Childcare Centre is one of the daycares participating in Dr. Adamo’s study.

Audio – Interview with Dr. Kristi Adamo

Dr. Kristi Adamo and her research team at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) are working to tackle the growing problem of low physical activity levels among preschoolers by improving physical activity rates in daycares. With the rise in dual-income families, the demand for childcare continues to grow and research indicates that the social and physical environment where children spend their time has a powerful influence on their behavior. Her intervention program, ABC: Activity Begins in Childhood, has been implemented in 18 daycares across the Ottawa area and incorporates activities based on fundamental movement skills.

Dr. Adamo is a CIHR-funded researcher from the University of Ottawa and CHEO with research interests in child obesity prevention and the critical periods of growth and development. In this podcast, she offers her insights on the importance of increasing physical activity levels in childhood.

Transcript

This is David Coulombe for CIHR’s Health Research in Action news.

Did you know that only 7% of Canadian children get the recommended amount of physical activity? With the rise in dual-income families, the demand for childcare continues to grow. Since research indicates that the social and physical environment where children spend their time has a powerful influence on their behavior, is there an increased need to work on improving physical activity in childcare settings?

David Coulombe: My guest today is Dr. Kristi Adamo from the University of Ottawa, also a researcher from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s Research Institute and a CIHR-funded researcher. Dr. Adamo, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Kristi Adamo: Thank you very much for asking.

David Coulombe: First question: Why is improving physical activity levels in daycares so important for Canadian children?

Dr. Kristi Adamo: Well first of all I have to tell you that most children in Canada attend daycare of some sort. In fact, children spend most of their waking hours in this setting. These environments can either support or they can deter children from being active. Daycares can provide a safe and inspiring learning environment, but they can also be quite sedentary where many children are stuck in very still environments or sitting for most of the day. What they really should be doing in the early years is jumping, playing, running around and testing their bodies and learning through action.

This is important because we know that physical activity is a critical component of healthy growth and development and physical activity levels decline as children age. In fact, the most recent data indicates that few school-aged children meet the physical activity guidelines and only 15% of 3 and 4-year-olds meet both the physical activity and the sedentary guidelines. Since physical activity behaviours track from early childhood to adulthood, changing health behaviours in young children is considerably easier than in older children or adults, so targeting these preschooler ages and young children is paramount for us.

David Coulombe: Could you talk to me about or tell me more about the Activity Begins in Childhood, the ABC program, you are testing in daycares?

Dr. Kristi Adamo: So we know that the early years have been identified as a critical time point for building a foundation for learning. Lifestyle is controlled by the caregivers and parents of these young children, so it’s important to try to intervene where the kids spend their time and with these role models that they are surrounded with. So we’ve developed a program that’s aimed at increasing preschool-aged children’s physical activity levels and to reduce the time they spend being sedentary.

Our ABC intervention is designed so that the childcare providers are providing an active curriculum. We train them to incorporate physical activity in the learning environment, to change their activities to more kinesthetic or active types of activities. We provide them with a manual that helps them design games and choose games that keep kids active and we also send in some of our staff members every once in a while to help them troubleshoot and to help them encourage more physical activity in their classrooms or in their daycare settings. So we are trying to provide them with the tools in order to allow them to facilitate activity in the daycare setting.

In the future, it’s our hope to impact policy and curriculum development for daycare centers as well as to ensure that early childhood educators are getting the appropriate training to recognize the benefits of physical activity as well as to facilitate a physically active curriculum.

David Coulombe: Something interesting is your study uses an accelerometer to collect data on physical activity levels. So how does this work exactly?

Dr. Kristi Adamo: So if you’ve ever used a pedometer, most people know what pedometers are. I know that often cereal boxes give them away, you can get them for free at various trade shows, etc. An accelerometer is like a super pedometer – it’s a really fancy pedometer. So it gives us information about a child’s activity pattern. So children in our study wear what is called an actical accelerometer on a stretchy belt around their waist. And we’re able to then gather information on their regular physical activity patterns – not only how much activity they’re doing, but when they’re doing it, how intense it is, sort of its time stamp, which is very important because pedometers don’t offer this. This also allows us to have a direct measure of how much time they spend sitting, or sedentary, which is what most studies cannot provide.

David Coulombe: Maybe, last question Dr. Adamo, what are some of the health benefits and long-term impacts of improving physical activity at a young age?

Dr. Kristi Adamo: That’s an excellent question and when it comes to it, what we have to know is physical activity is important for all ages, but it is particularly important in young ages because it improves sleep, it improves school performance, it improves mood, there are impacts on self-esteem, reduces the risk of depression, it boosts energy, and most importantly at this age, it can be fun. So it’s important to know that physical inactivity and poor fitness are risk factors for things like obesity, and metabolic disease and other kinds of diseases. And because we know that physical activity levels track from early childhood to adulthood, increasing physical activity levels in the early years are really important to ensure that kids are on the right growth trajectory and on the right trajectory when it comes to health habits.

David Coulombe: Very interesting. Thank you very much, Dr. Adamo.

Dr. Kristi Adamo: Thank you very much, David.

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