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The latest national statistics on child obesity may be discouraging, but they only confirm what we already know: that we have to continue efforts to encourage children to adopt healthier lifestyles.

The Canadian Press reported last week on Statistics Canada's latest figures  on the subject, which conclude that almost a third of Canadian children are either overweight or obese. Using World Health Organization ideal weight measures and data from the 2009-2011 Canadian Health Measures Survey, Statistics Canada found that 31.5 per cent of youth ages five to 17 - about 1.6 million young Canadians - are overweight or obese. According to the CP story, the proportion was slightly higher in the five-to-11 age bracket, where the rate was 33 per cent, and slightly lower in the upper age range of 12-17, where 30 per cent were considered overweight or obese.

These statistics may be new, but the trend isn't. Previous studies have also highlighted the obesity problem among young Canadians and the risk of  cardiovascular complications. These warnings have led to efforts in schools to encourage better nutrition and physical fitness.

Ever so gradually, some of this public education may be paying off, if the 2010-11 School Health Action Planning and Evaluation System (SHAPES-P.E.I.) survey is any indication. The study, released jointly by the University of Prince Edward Island, the P.E.I. Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the P.E.I. Department of Health and Wellness, collected data from 10,000 grades 5-12 students across the province on healthy eating, physical activity and mental fitness. The study does show some progress - in some areas - since a similar survey was done in 2008. Specifically, it says 69 per cent of Island students have high levels of mental fitness, up from 66 per cent in 2008. As well, kids aren't consuming as much junk food and fewer students are smoking.

Where the survey reveals some room for improvement is in the less than half of the students who meet national physical activity guidelines. Those guidelines call for a minimum of 60 minutes per day, including what kids get at school.

Clearly this survey, and the recent Statistics Canada study, suggest there's still a lot of work to do to encourage kids to be more physically active. And that's a huge challenge. Kids tend to resist adult-imposed activities. It's the nature of the beast. The folks with SHAPES-P.E.I., though, seem to have an intriguing approach to exploring the link between mental fitness and health behaviours. As Sterling Carruthers, school health specialist for the Department of Education, put it, "We want to understand what makes students feel good about themselves and how that contributes to healthy lifestyle choices."

That makes sense. People who feel good about themselves may well make healthier choices, including choices to be more physically active.

The old adage about leading a horse to water could apply here. We can provide all kinds of fitness programs, equipment and opportunities for our kids, but unless they're motivated to respond, these initiatives likely won't succeed.


Organizations: Statistics Canada, Canadian Press, Department of Education School Health Action Planning and Evaluation System World Health Organization University of Prince Edward Island

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