Blogs & Comment

Couch potatoes don't make for future leaders: Elaine Chin

Get those kids exercising

(Photo: Jennifer Smith)

(Photo: Jennifer Smith)

How active are your kids, and how well are they doing in school? New research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that moderate to vigorous exercise can improve a child’s performance in school.

Nothing you haven’t heard before, right? Pay closer attention because down the road this is going to matter for your business. Because ultimately, what the study proves is that we must increase the quantity and intensity of exercise both at schools and at home if we want our children to be more globally competitive.

The study looked at academic results in English, math, and science for children at age 11, 13, 15 and 16. Improvements among the 5,000 children were sustainable over the long term, and more importantly, demonstrated a dose-response effect. The more exercise, the better the grades. Specifically, it appears that exercise stimulates neurons (nerve cells) to grow in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.

The result of this study supports the notion that exercise, while good for the heart, is also good for the brain. Now we can see that productivity and performance can be enhanced in early childhood. We don’t need to wait and see the positive effects of exercise on preventing heart attacks and dementia in later life.

While the study did not rank children’s performance on a country-by-country basis, there are implications for all countries in terms of competitiveness.

Looking at world academic standings, Canadians rank respectably, but we can’t afford to be complacent. Measured against 65 other countries, Canada places fifth overall in reading, seventh in science and eighth in mathematics, behind China, Korea, Finland and Singapore in the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development’s (OCED) education assessment released in 2010. Continuous improvement must be made if we are to keep up—but there’s evidence the opposite is happening.

For example, between 2000 and 2009, Korea posted a 15-point gain in reading on the OECD’s PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) while Canada posted a 10-point decline. Almost half of Canadian students (45%) who wrote the test in 2000 achieved top scores in reading, but in 2009 only 40% made similar grades.

Now let’s take a look at how active our children were in 2009. The numbers aren’t good. The 2009 Canadian Health Measure Survey measured activity levels amongst our young children. About 84% of 3 to 4-year-olds in Canada meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years, which recommend at least 180 minutes of daily physical activity at any intensity. But only 7% of 5 to 11-year-olds, and 4% of 12 to 17-year-olds, meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Children and Youth. Those guidelines suggest at least 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity. (We don’t know whether or not Korean students, for example, are commensurately more active, but again the British study shows we can raise academic performance with more exercise so it’s a valid way forward.)

Clearly there’s a huge gap between what we should do in terms of exercise and what we are actually achieving. Seeing our children become chronically ill is heart breaking when it can be avoided and worries me more than any relation to academic slippage. We know, for example, that inactivity is leading to an epidemic of obese children and disease complications. Many teenage children are developing heart disease and diabetes.

To keep our children healthy, and yes, to improve the academic scores of Canada’s workers and leaders, we need to get them off the couch and moving. It’s up to educators and parents to make that happen.

Dr. Elaine Chin is the Chief Medical Officer of the Executive Health Centre. Her clinic was the first in North America to offer genetics testing and now tests telomere length as well.