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Current state of physical activity among Canadians: impacts and opportunities for action.

In this episode, we welcome Dr. Leigh Vanderloo, Scientific Director with ParticipACTION to talk about the current state of physical activity among Canadians, the health impacts and costs of inaction, and the opportunities for ACTION.


About Dr. Vanderloo: 

Dr. Vanderloo received her PhD in Health Promotion from the University of Western Ontario in 2016. Her area of research focuses on the objective measurement of physical activity and sedentary time, and how these behaviours impact physical, mental, and social well-being. Currently, Dr. Vanderloo is working as the Scientific Director at ParticipACTION and is also a Research Fellow at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, where her research examines the association between movement behaviours and various health outcomes in young children.


Leanne Buck:   Dr. Vanderloo, welcome to the podcast.


Leigh Vanderloo:    Thank you so much for having me.


Leanne Buck:    Absolutely. It's a pleasure to have you here joining me today to talk about a subject that I'm very passionate about. I grew up hearing the messaging from ParticipACTION to get up, get out there and be active. The infamous BodyBreak with Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod was on prime time, and back then I understood the positive encouragement, but what I didn't understand was the dire consequences of inactivity over time on an individual level, but let alone on a mass scale. Before we take the deep dive, can you please just tell tell us a little bit about ParticipACTION?


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah, absolutely. So ParticipACTION, it was first opened its doors in 1971, so we just recently celebrated our 50th anniversary. But really, we are a national nonprofit organization in Canada where our main goal is really to help support active movement behaviors among all people living in Canada, as well as to work with the organizations or sectors, sector leaders, really to help support their constituents or the individuals and community groups that they work with. And we really want physical activity to become a part of everyday life and that it becomes a need to have rather than a nice to have. And so what does that look like? What are those barriers? And digging a bit further to help support how do we make physical activity or the healthy choice, the easy choice. And so for us, it really just focuses on building networks, community engagement, as well as not only generating new evidence, synthesizing evidence, but also finding ways to disseminate it in very public facing and easily consumable ways so that this information gets into the hands of the people or the organization's best positioned to actually do something with it.


Leanne Buck:    Yeah, it's so important and I've been following ParticipACTION as well on Instagram, and it is. The messaging that comes out from there is very human, human scale and relatable. So I definitely appreciate that. And again, this time that you're taking today to chat with us. So what is your role as scientific director with ParticipACTION?
Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah. My main role within the organization is really to help ensure at a very high level that everything that we're doing is evidence informed and science backed. From all of our communications that we put out our marketing activities is really to ensure that what we're doing, what we're creating and how we're trying to position ourselves is really as a thought leader in the space when it comes to physical activity, recreation, and sport. It's working collaboratively with our community partners as well as some of the individuals and people that might be, or organizations, that might not be typically within the physical activity space. So that's at a high level. What I do in order to achieve that, it's really being responsible for various arms within the organization, be it our more general science and research, to evaluations, to knowledge translation and mobilization, and then lastly, to behavioral insights. So how are we leveraging data to help with our decision-making from a number of our different activities, whether it's through our communications, whether it's the ParticipACTION app. But really how are we using that data to help inform our organizational or programmatic decisions? So that's kind of the hat that I wear. I do serve as the organization's main spokesperson in terms of helping to support our messaging, to help get it out, working with a number of different community groups, delivering presentations, helping to lead and liaise with our research advisory group.


And then of course, from that knowledge translation, which is probably the area that I find most interesting, is trying to ensure that we're getting the right information to the right people in the right way and at the right time. And what does that look like? So you mentioned the importance of our messaging being relatable, and that is really important to us. All too often, anything around research or in academia really does tend to remain with those members of those particular communities. And so while it's great for us, it doesn't necessarily help the organizations or individuals that might also benefit from this information in terms of making decisions for not only their own health, but maybe their family, the groups clients that they work with. And so it's all about how can we find ways to distill that information down.


Leanne Buck:    Yeah. Well, I'm really excited to chat with you about those particular topics. As you know, I work in active transportation, so making that information relatable and relatable to municipalities and the implementation of these programs and initiatives is really interesting. But let's set the stage. Help set the stage for us. Here at the end of 2022, overall, how active or inactive are Canadians?


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah. Probably not surprisingly giving that we're still dealing with remnants of the pandemic that we did see shifts in movement behaviors that are probably not surprising. We saw an increase in screen use in both adults as well as children and youth. We saw shifts in physical activity. For children and youth, we definitely saw a decline that kind of tended to remain, probably not surprising given that many of the venues that kids would get active were closed, whether they be sports, recreation, communities, even access to parks, depending on where you were located in Canada. Schools were closed. We saw that for adults, definitely an increase in screen consumption, again, because working from home, how we were trying to stay connected to our social networks as well as for recreation. Physical activity definitely at the start of the pandemic was definitely hard hit.


So we saw that dramatic decrease in activity levels. But as time went on, we did start to see some upticks. Not necessarily returning to pre-pandemic levels, but we did start to see that at least from those higher intensity, so that moderate to vigorous physical activity, we did start to see a little bit of a rebound effect there. Now that's probably because people started to figure out, okay, how else can I get my higher intensive, or my exercise in, in a day? So that's where we saw, you couldn't get dumbbells or a bike or even an indoor cycling machine. And so we really saw that take off. But what continued to stay low and still does to this day, is that light physical activity or that incidental activity. So most of us would've been getting that before by walking or wheeling to and from public transit stops, the parking lot to the office, walking around, even the office over to a colleague's desk, the distance you had to go even to get to the break room or to the bathroom.


Whereas, when we were at home, those same opportunities to engage or participate in that lighter activity that most of us would've spent several hours per day engaging in that just no longer was a reality. And with many of us still working either primarily from home or a hybrid situation, that continues to be an area where we need to still look at how best to support those particular behaviors to get in the additional movement throughout the day. So if we're looking at hard numbers, children and youth, we were seeing under 30%, so about 28% of children and youth were meeting national physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous, so that heart pumping physical activity, per day. For adults, it was about 49%. So again, more than half are still struggling to meet national guidelines, which for adults is 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, which if we look at a daily average, it's roughly about 22, 23 minutes per day.


Leanne Buck:    You're talking more than a walk around the block. So you're moderate to more physical exercise.


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah, you're going to be breathing a little bit harder, you're going to feel your heart rate go up. Also, your body temperature, you might start to sweat a bit. So yeah, it's more definitely higher intensity that you want to be aiming for maximum health benefits. And health, not just in a physical sense, but psychological, social, all of those different things, we're going to see a little bit more bang for our bucket that higher intensity. But again, with the guidelines is both regardless of the demographic or the age group I should say, is really that encouragement of several hours of light physical activity per day. And so even when we look at those, we're seeing very low numbers starting to rebound a little bit, but still continues to remain quite low and is definitely from a public health perspective is one of those areas that we probably want to focus our efforts most.


Leanne Buck:    So before I ask you the public health question, I just have one more here. ParticipACTION has been around for 50 years, so presumably there would be a lot of graphs showing the ups and downs of physical activity over time and what the trends are. If you were to give us just a sort of starting and an end point maybe from, I'll just throw out there even 25 years ago. Overall, do you feel like the trends, we're getting more active as a society or are we stagnating, are we decreasing in activity? Where do we stand over time?


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah. I would say if we're looking around three decades ago, there was a period where we've consistently seen declines. And I would say one of the main drivers for that is that physical activity's really been socially engineered out of our day-to-day lives. What required physical force or labor, whatever that was to do, to carry out our activities of daily living, no longer exists. They're not necessarily the same. Some, but for the most part, it's not. Technological advances have also removed such opportunities, an age of convenience, all of these reasons. In the last maybe decade or so, the levels have been fairly stagnant. So not necessarily worsening, which is a little bit of a good news story to say like, okay, we're at least finding a way to hold steady and then trying to find other ways that we can increase. What's become much more problematic is the sedentary behavior.


Before, we used to think of physical activity and sedentary behaviors on opposite ends of the same spectrum. Like if you were active or getting that 60 minutes a day as a child, then you're active, you couldn't be sedentary. What we now know is that they're actually two complete different and independent spectrums, and that we need to be focusing on both of them every day. So not only are we trying to up our physical activity, but we're also finding ways to limit our amount of time that we're spending being sedentary a lot. And again, with the changes in the labor force, how we do our activities, our choice of recreation activities have changed. And just the abundance of screen use and digital media consumption, whether it's work related or again, for leisure, that has definitely really started to surpass.


And we've heard stuff and whether you agree with it or not, around sitting is the new smoking. And this whole idea of while the evidence still shows that smoking is definitely more detrimental, it's not to say that it's by much. And in fact that if we're not focusing on both increasing our activity and limiting sedentary behaviors, we're still putting ourselves at risk. And these risks are cumulative. So the longer we're inactive, the longer we're spending sedentary, the cumulative effect it has. So we always want to try to take that health promotion perspective of early intervention and this idea that it's never too late.


Leanne Buck:    Absolutely. That's an important message. So what is this data telling us about the health impacts and the associated costs? Healthcare is a big topic right now. It's a big concern.


Leigh Vanderloo:    Absolutely. I mean, I think if anything, with the pandemic too and all the different changes, the various public health restrictions and measures that were putting into place to help limit the spread, we definitely did see the kinks in the system and where there were things that were working, where there's definitely needed areas for improvement. And definitely, this whole idea of prevention and health promotion really got called into question in terms of should there be added investments in this particular domain? And from a physical activity or just movement behavior perspective in general, I would definitely argue absolutely. With the rise of non-communicable or chronic diseases on the rise, our population in Canada is aging, all of these different things, we undoubtedly expect to see some of these numbers like grow exponentially. So not just talking doubling, but looking at tripling and quadrupling. And those cost a lot on our healthcare system.


Leanne Buck:    That's scary.


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah, absolutely. And we're thinking like this is also in the billions, not millions. It's tens of billions of dollars that it costs. And not only direct healthcare costs, so the hospitalizations, the treatments, the pharmaceuticals, the healthcare staff, but it's also indirect healthcare. So we're looking at insurance claims, absenteeism from work, different issues there. So it really is far reaching and a stat that came out from the World Health Organization named physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for premature death and chronic disease. So that's huge when you think of, I think a lot of people maybe underestimate just how devastating it can be on your body and as a society to not invest in physical activity. When you think of all the other things that could be out there that really physical inactivity is that fourth leading cause for global disease burden and global premature mortality.


So it is definitely an area we need to invest in. We also know that the more active we can be, even shifting our population's activity levels by even 10%. So just getting 10% more of our population active is going to inject billions of dollars into our GDP, into our healthcare. And I think another reason is oftentimes, when we think of physical activity, our mind almost instinctively goes to weight, that the reason one should be active is for healthy weight. Or we limit it to more of those other physical or physiological benefits, so heart health. Sometimes you might not be active until maybe you're someone who has now been diagnosed with heart disease or maybe you've had a heart attack or someone in your family has, and now you're choosing to change, make some healthier behavior choices in service of your health in supporting your recovery.


While those are certainly true, what we're missing is the fact that physical activity actually impacts the multifacetedness that is our health in that it's not just our physical health, it's our mental health, it's our cognitive health, it's our environmental social health. It impacts the economy. So it really is far reaching. And so when you think of all those areas, and especially coming off the pandemic, mental health was always an issue in Canada, definitely a burdened system. But when we added on the pandemic, it really intensified the mental health issues and the required supports for a number of different individuals. And knowing that physical activity is one of those things that can help support, not necessarily replace the need for pharmaceutical intervention or therapy, psychotherapy, but definitely is an area that we should be considering and that many of the major colleges, so the Canadian Psychological Association do as part practice, recommend the utilization of physical activity to help prevent further prognosis or the onset of depression, mild to moderate depression, anxiety.


And those two, just to name a few. But really I think we sometimes think too limited in scope in terms of just the benefits we can get from being active, but also the health consequences that can come with us not being active or not engaging in sufficient activity. And also, not being mindful of how much time we're spending being sedentary.


Leanne Buck:    I think what you said there connected with me that we often wait. As people, we wait until it's either too late or until something has sort of feared us into a change. So whether it be we found out that we have heart disease or we have diabetes, or there's something that's affecting our health, and therefore we must make a change in our lifestyle to continue to live and live with some form of good life quality. Now let's take it back. And I always think, oh, it's so disappointing, we don't want to get there to that stage. So let's head back and let's talk about youth because if we can encourage our youth and create good habits that not because you should or you have to, but because it's fun, because it's enjoyable. Not necessarily thinking that if you don't do this, it's going to be disastrous for your health and for community overall as Canadians.


But I'm curious to know with the evolution of scheduled extracurricular activities, COVID aside, where those things stopped, we've had a lot of extra extracurricular activities. Kids aren't necessarily out as much as they used to be, at least I'll say back when I was a kid out just riding a bike and doing things and there was no sort of taking us to too many other scheduled activities at the time. But are we seeing youth generally more active now than say, 20 years ago with these scheduled activities, whether it be martial arts or extracurricular ballet classes, they're a lot more kids doing those than even in school intramurals and things like that?


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah, no, I mean you mentioned a number of great things. One for sure, the earlier we can start the better. With behaviors like physical activity or studying to your behaviors, they tend to persist throughout the lifespan. So active kids are more likely to become active teens, active young adults, and then continue into older adulthood. The same is true with the opposite. Inactivity also tends to be a behavior that tracks across the lifespan. So yeah, the earlier we can start, instill those behaviors, the better off we're going to be. But again, there's no wrong time or never too late to start and really thinking that, "Oh, if I wasn't athletic or I wasn't viewed as a sporty kid, then that's just not part of my identity and it's not really for me." And I think it goes to your other point in terms of a lot of times when we think about how to get active, a lot of us go to sports.


That's how we get active. And for some people that's great. That is how they get in their minutes of physical activity per day, per week. But there's a lot of other people that sport isn't their thing or they haven't found one that fits. And I think that's completely fine. I think you want to choose, like you said, an activity that you're going to resonate with and that's fun, that it's not viewed as just a chore, an extra thing you have to do. Because when it comes to something like physical activity, if you don't enjoy it, the likelihood of you returning to it and wanting to repeat it again is unlikely or it's going to be a constant challenge and there's always going to be that kind of point of friction.


Leanne Buck:    Absolutely.


Leigh Vanderloo:    We want to choose something that's fun. It's what we would tell kids too. It's like choose a game that you have fun doing, choose something fun. So that same mantra should be applied for adults too. If you are not someone who sports, if going to the gym is in your thing, some people thrive in the gym settings or group activity classes. For other people, it just doesn't. And you hear stories all the time, people sign up especially coming into the new year and want to and then just. They don't stick with it for a number of different reasons. Again, it's complex. But a lot of times it's because people just don't feel like it's the right place for them and that's fine. And so then choose something else. Maybe it's at home, maybe it's just spending time walking and wheeling in your neighborhood and going for a 30-minute walk every day.


Leanne Buck:    That's a perfect point. Yeah.


Leigh Vanderloo:    It's one of those things of we don't need to put ourselves into box in terms of how there's no necessarily better way to get activity. There's no such thing as bad movement. Something is better than nothing, more is always better. And so when we think about trends giving that physical activity has been going down to remaining stagnant despite the fact of children and youth being over-programmed, I would not say that that has resulted in more activity. I also have to think about who are enrolled in that activity. Is it all children and youth or is there an accessibility issue in terms of the cost implicated. Is it a couple times a week? Is it once a week? Is it only per term? So a lot of these sports happen for a season, and so it's looking for additional opportunities. We did see in the pandemic that yes, we saw loss in those kind of organized activities, but there were reports not only anecdotally, but in the evidence that we did see more of an uptake in this unstructured play. So kids becoming kids again, engaging in imaginative play, more time just being spent outdoors.


Leanne Buck:    I noticed that. Noticed this, being people in our neighborhoods and I was out and about more and I saw for the first time kids really out playing, riding their bikes. And I think Dr. Vanderloo, this is a really good segue into transportation and active transportation because as soon as we open our doors from our home, our apartment, wherever it is that we live and we step outside, we are in an active mode. And so what we choose from that point is an interesting topic.


And so I would love to make this connection to active mobility choices. The federal government and some provincial governments are helping fund active transportation plans and infrastructure improvements to make getting around by walking, biking and emerging electric scooters and other micro mobility devices more accessible and safer. There's lots of benefits of not choosing our cars for all trips, climate being one that we hear about a lot, of course, reduction in carbons and the other is health. But I would say I feel that that's the extent of the understanding, it's climate and health. They're left at a high level. So how has ParticipACTION, or has ParticipACTION had the opportunity to get involved working with municipalities or other organizations in the implementation of active transportation initiatives, whether it be through promotion or enabling? If so, what does this look like? And if not, maybe do you have ideas for what the synergies could be?


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah, definitely active transportation is certainly an important area of focus for the organization. Every year we release a report card either for children and youth or for adults. And one of the key indicators is active transportation, because that is one way that people can engage in physical activity. Again, it doesn't have to be organized. It can be how we're getting from point A to point B, or even drawing on mixed modes. So depending on where you live, maybe there's a little bit of active transportation and then there's some public transportation, for example. So lots of different ways that we can mix it up. For us, definitely seeing the release of a national framework or federal framework or strategy with regards to active transportation here in Canada was definitely something we were really happy to see. We've never had that before in Canada.


So to kind of see at the federal level, a decision being made that this is an area we should invest in, from a health perspective, from a climate change perspective, from just getting people moving from point A to point B in various ways, it is really important. In terms of our role in this area being national in scope, I would certainly say that one is playing the role of or helping to support, build awareness around it. So what are the numbers? What are we seeing? What seems to allow or what type of characteristics tend to be more conducive to people engaging or cities, organizations, communities, even sub communities within cities. So if we look at say, university campuses or workplaces, certain neighborhoods, what are those things that draw people in to engage in more active modes of transportation. Looking at policies and how can we support that through our strategic initiatives of the organization.


As well as ensuring that we're staying connected with a lot of different groups or organizations at the municipal, federal as well as provincial and territorial levels. So being aware of what's going on, what are some of those initiatives, where are we best positioned to help support that? So again, ParticipACTION doesn't necessarily work a lot with that kind of front line thing. It's more so working with the organizations or individuals that by extension work with those particular groups. So I'd say a lot of it is around serving as this kind of megaphone for where are the issues, what groups are already doing great work, where are some potential ways that we should intervene and really trying to draw attention to or leveraging the current evidence that is coming out of the work being done by a lot of these champions already in the space that go beyond the health sector, that go beyond researchers in academia, but really looking to urban planners, architects, other people that are in that kind of ambulatory space, outdoor risky place.


So again, really extending beyond just the kind of silos that we sometimes find ourselves in and really working collaboratively because we are very acutely aware that this is not an issue we'll be able to solve on our own. And not one that's going to be solved by the academic or the research community, but really this coordinated and concerted effort among a number of different key players to make this work. And so I think it has to do with sharing information, figuring out whose role is what in this area, but again, moving towards that single goal of advancing that agenda with regards to incorporating more active transportation in our day-to-day lives for whatever that main driver is, if it's an emissions perspective, if it's just a cost effectiveness, if it's a health thing. But regardless, this is a great way that we very much consistently advocate for in terms of a great way to sneak in additional activity into your day is to leverage active transportation.


Leanne Buck:    So you have just given me some food for thought and some great ideas. I'm working on some existing active transportation plans right now for a smaller community in northern Alberta, for instance. And public engagement is a big piece of putting these plans together if we want to engage and inspire. So it's not just all about the planning of the network and closing the gaps and to make it more safer and connected for people to get around actively, but it's also to educate and inspire people to do that. And I just feel like ParticipACTION might have a wonderful role to play actually at this level, at this area too, because we're inviting people to participate in the growth, in the infrastructure planning of their community. But not everybody understands that what you're talking about, the research behind the impacts of, and maybe the positive impacts if you were to stay on the positive spectrum of the conversation, the positive impacts of being active rather than scaring people into action. I don't know if that works or not, but-


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah. I think it's an excellent point in terms of focusing on positive frame messaging, in terms of look at all this potential in terms of us getting more active and... Because we know scare tactics don't work, especially from health perspective. And you had also made an excellent point previously, is that because the consequences of not being active are rarely immediate. If I choose not to get active today, besides maybe my sleep or maybe some stuff around stress management, I might feel maybe not, isn't necessarily as evident. Whereas other things, if I don't floss my teeth tonight or I don't brush my teeth tonight, I'm going to wake up with tiny sweaters on all of my teeth. One of those things that there is an immediate consequence. So I think with physical activity is it's hard to sometimes build that what you believe to be your susceptibility or even if it's your perceived susceptibility, because those consequences might not occur for say, 20 years.


Leanne Buck:    They're so far down the road.


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah. Or the impact on our carbon footprint. You think it's like, "Well, that could be so far off." But the thing is that it's that whole reason of because it's cumulative, we want to be focusing on that now. And really, like you said, engaging, being one of the key players that are involved, drawing attention to some really cool initiatives that are happening across. We do deliver microgranting opportunities throughout different programs that we're releasing, different challenges that again, can help some of these on the ground organizations or group further their agenda. All with this ultimate goal of supporting more active individuals, communities, organizations. And while our focus is to enhance physical activity, it just happens that that's just one byproduct of supporting active transportation, active commuting.


Leanne Buck:    Well, and that really speaks to the implementation and enabling plan that I'm talking about. There's the design and then there's the actual implementation of and the opportunities. And so perhaps partnering with or reaching out to ParticipACTION is a great way that communities can do that and one maybe that they haven't thought about yet or they don't know all the benefits of doing so.


Leigh Vanderloo:    Absolutely.


Leanne Buck:    So there's so much here to talk about. I feel like I could speak with you for gosh, another couple hours at least on this topic. Thank you so much Dr. Vanderloo, for providing this insight and to what ParticipACTION does the positive benefits that the organization is wanting to relay to keep people moving for the 50 years of service to Canada, truly, and to what you do. It's an exciting job you have. Do you have a message of inspiration that you can leave with us, a message perhaps even for our young population?


Leigh Vanderloo:    Yeah, absolutely. First and foremost, thank you very much for the opportunity to come on and speak here. And it's great hearing about all the great work that you're doing. You're advocating and pushing forward. It's such an important, important piece. So thank you for that. In terms of a lasting message, I would definitely hone in on that idea that something is better than nothing, more is always better. So if you're starting off, you don't know what to do, start slow, build up, the goal is to hit your population or age specific guidelines. That doesn't mean you have to do it on day one. It doesn't mean you have to do it by month one. It's just this target to help support. So start slow, find ways to easily sneak in more movement throughout your day, even if it's just little bouts here and there.


Try to break up extended periods of sedentary behaviors or sitting and just find something fun. I think this idea of fun is very much overlooked and I think the more that we can try to associate movement with fun, we're going to go a lot further and we're just going to see that naturally start to trickle a little bit more into our day-to-day lives. Make physical activity a regular part of your day-to-day routine. It's a great option for self-care. Use it as a way as a tool for stress busting, helping you get that added advantage in work or in school because it's going to help immensely your cognitive health. So how we think and learn. And then lastly, if for your family, make family time, active time. So find ways that you're not going to replace bonding time with another thing. It's how can we ensure that while we're bonding, there might be opportunities to enhance or increase the amount of movement that we're participating in.


Leanne Buck:    I love that.


Leigh Vanderloo:    So those would be my last few little tidbits on where I think, just make the healthy choice the easy choice.


Leanne Buck:    I really love that. And I think we're working into the holidays here and more family time together and we tend to, I don't know, I'll say generally maybe tend to focus in on consumerism and gifts. And maybe if that can be married with a little bit of outdoor fun and activities as a family, that would be a really great thing. So it's been my pleasure. It's be my pleasure speaking with you. And thank you for listening to the Uplift Community Podcast. Have an amazing day and week ahead.

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