The facts are undeniable. All Canadians — from children to adults — are living increasingly unhealthy lifestyles. Screen addiction, hours of prolonged sitting, processed food and favouring an iPad over time spent outdoors have become the norms for many in our society. The average adult works 40 hours a week, but the average child today is spending upwards of 42 hours a week in front of a screen (1). These trends have alarming consequences for individual well-being and the sustainability of our healthcare system. Our current environment has led to a country where 1 in 3 children are now considered overweight or obese.
The high cost of being sedentary
According to the recent Report from the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (the Senate), “Canadians are paying for [the obesity crisis] with their wallets — and with their lives. Each year 48,000 to 66,000 Canadians die from conditions linked to excess weight .... and obesity costs Canada between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion annually in healthcare and lost productivity.” (2)
The Senate is not alone in ringing the alarm bells on the decline of physical activity in today’s digital environment. The World Health Organization (WHO) has characterized the rising levels of physical inactivity as a pandemic (3). The WHO bases their statement on the fact that physical inactivity and obesity are directly correlated with increased prevalence of chronic diseases, such as type II diabetes, hypertension and some cancers. Today in Canada, there is a new diagnosis of type II diabetes every 20 minutes (4).
Physical and health education: a solution
We know one of the main causes: lack of physical activity. We also know one of the easiest solutions: quality physical and health education (PHE) programs taught in schools, where nearly all children are present, to increase physical activity and to help children become lifelong healthy living ambassadors.
There are many benefits of quality PHE programs. Increased physical activity has been shown to result in better academic achievement, concentration, classroom behaviour and more focused learning. Other benefits include improvements in psychological well-being, self-concept and sociability (5).
Warning signs for PHE
Yet, despite all the irrefutable advantages, the provision of PHE programs has been steadily declining in the kindergarten to grade 12 system. PHE programs are often seen as secondary subjects to Math, English and Science. One recent example that has provoked debate within academia is the decision by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., to temporarily suspend admission to their PHE program, effective September 2017. Although the program will be absorbed into the Kinesiology faculty, physical education will no longer be offered as a teachable subject.
In their news release on March 11, 2016, Queen’s University justifies their decision by stating “changes in higher education and the health industry have resulted in a general trend away from physical education programs. Additionally, many universities are no longer accepting physical education as a “teachable” subject in teacher education programs.” (6)
Research: QPE is an non-negotiable necessity
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is clear on what needs to be done to address the obesity epidemic in their 2015 Quality Physical Education (QPE) Guidelines for Policymakers. UNESCO states that policymakers need to: ensure QPE is a core part of school curricula; and invest in teacher education and professional development (7).
In a recent 2015 briefing on physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour, the Conference Board of Canada affirms UNESCO’s recommendations. The Conference Board suggests that the most effective interventions to increase physical activity include exposing individuals to positive PHE experiences and creating activity-friendly environments complimented by supportive policies. They suggest that school-based PHE interventions are one of the best options. However, they also caution that these programs can be hindered if schools don’t offer regular PHE programs taught by specialists (8).
The Ministry of Education in Ontario has reaffirmed their support for PHE as an important school subject through their recent efforts to revise and update the Health and Physical Education Curriculum, released in 2015. According to the Minister of Education, the recently revised curriculum is “the most consulted on curriculum document in Ontario history." (9) Stakeholders see the curriculum as a step in the right direction for the future of PHE programs. The Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (OPHEA) suggests that the revised curriculum “stands to be the single largest health promotion intervention that this province has ever seen — lessening the burden on our healthcare and social services systems.” (10)
Ontario is not alone in their support of PHE in the school curriculum. Manitoba has been an advocate for PHE since 2007 when they became the only province to mandate physical education from kindergarten to grade 12 (11). British Columbia has also reaffirmed their support for PHE in their revised curriculum focusing on holistic child health released in 2015. According to the Ministry of Education in British Columbia, “active kids are healthier and learn better." (12)
Change is dangerously slow
However, despite this formal institutional support, there is a gap between optimal policy and timetabling and hiring decisions at the board and school level. Currently less than half of school programs are being delivered by teachers trained in PHE. According to a 2011 report by People for Education, only 43% of elementary schools have a specialist PHE teacher and most of these specialists are only employed part-time (13).
People for Education see this as a gap that needs to be filled. They recommend that “the province provide specific and targeted funding for PHE programs." (14) UNESCO is also vocal about the importance of maintaining physical education programs, and states that “governments should be responsible for ensuring physical education is accorded the same status as other subjects.” (15) Finally, to cite the recent Senate report again, “the Minister of Health, in discussion with provincial and territorial counterparts as well as non-governmental organizations…need to advocate for…school programs related to…improved physical education and physical activity.” (16)
PHE programs are an essential part of the school curriculum, providing children with the skills to develop into well-rounded, happy and healthy adults. We believe that parents and the broader general public recognize the inestimable value that accrues to society from the delivery of PHE programs in schools, and to maintaining the availability of high-quality PHE programs to pre-service teacher candidates in universities across Canada.