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Canada’s first ever state-of-the-nation address on children’s physical literacy shows alarming results.

The national research project assessed children’s physical literacy, which is a measure of their understanding of and responsibility for their own healthy active lifestyle.

Katie Gunnell, a professor in the Department of Psychology, was a key member of the research team led by the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group, known as HALO, at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Group. They found that two-thirds of Canadian children aged 8-12 have not achieved adequate levels of physical literacy.

“Ultimately if we can improve kids’ physical competence, motivation, confidence, knowledge, and understanding—in other words, their physical literacy—we will be setting kids up for more healthy active lifestyles as they develop,” Gunnell says.

Ten thousand children from across Canada participated in this intensive study, which provides baseline data needed to measure physical literacy in Canadian children over time. The research team examined motor skills, fitness, physical competence, motivation, confidence, and the children’s sense of responsibility for engaging in lifelong physical activity.

Distressingly, the study found that Canadian children have aerobic fitness levels at the 30th percentile of global norms and that only 20 percent are meeting physical activity guidelines.

“These results show us that more needs to be done,” said Dr. Mark Tremblay, Senior Scientist at the CHEO Research Institute and Director for HALO.

“Every organization concerned with the well-being of children, whether provincial governments, municipal public health and recreation departments, boards of education, and sports or recreation groups, should allocate increased resources to increase children’s physical literacy,” he says.

“Additional education campaigns, greater priority in school curricula, and increased numbers of physical education specialists could have a real impact on the health of Canada’s children,” Tremblay concluded.

Professor Gunnell was approached to participate in this project based on her impressive profile as a researcher focused on understanding the behaviours that are related to well-being. Her experience with the Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy protocol, an extensive assessment tool of the skills and abilities that contribute to physical literacy, was also critical to the project’s development.

Katie Gunnell
Professor Katie Gunnell

Gunnell’s Research Roots

Gunnell initially leaned towards a career as a physiotherapist so much of her schooling was done in kinesiology. After volunteering at a few clinics, she noticed that patients were not very motivated to do their prescribed exercises.

While Gunnell has always been intrinsically fascinated in the psychological side of human movement, it was through this experience that she truly began to cultivate an interest in studying how and why people are motivated or unmotivated for physical activity.

“During this time, someone I know was diagnosed with a chronic condition that could be alleviated or reduced with physical activity, yet this person was unwilling to start an exercise program.

“I began to wonder how we can help motivate people to be physically active for their health and also if activity can be positive for their mental health.”

At the time of her experience in physiotherapy clinics, there was much research to suggest physical activity can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, but there existed comparatively less data on how activity can actually boost happiness and positive emotions.

She followed this line of inquiry into a Ph.D. where she undertook a subspecialty in measurement, evaluation, and research methods before completing a post-doctoral fellowship in psychology and kinesiology.

In her post-doctoral role, she worked as a scientist with an interdisciplinary team of physiologists, psychologists, and other public health scientists with the HALO research group at the CHEO Research Institute.

Gunnell was compelled to pursue her research career in this realm because she believes that maintaining physical activity in this day in age is a significant challenge for Canadians of all ages.

“People are busy and physical activity is hard, it is no wonder we all struggle,” she says.

“With my research, I hope to uncover some of the psychological factors that can make it a little bit easier for people to work physical activity into their daily lives.  Whether that is through goal setting, technology-based apps, or re-thinking physical activity from a structured boring one-hour bout at the gym to segmented fun activities throughout the day.”

As Gunnell continues to study the benefits of physical activity, she is beginning to hone in on the amount of time we all spend in front of screens.

“I’m interested in trying to determine if there are psychological experiences that people have when they use screens such as smartphones, computers, or video games that are suggestive of ‘good’ quality use or ‘bad’ quality use and how they can enhance or detract from happiness and positive emotions,” she said.

“For example, if someone is mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, will that impact their psychological health differently compared to if they were mindfully engaging with the content they are seeing? We know that spending longer durations of time on screens is not great for psychological health, but we really don’t have a genuine understanding of the quality of experiences people have with their screens and how that impacts their behaviours and psychological health.”

Gunnell’s new and more precise focus on screens is undeniably a central issue in Canadian culture and given her impressive contributions to field, her findings will undoubtedly help us all—young and old—to refine our perceptions on mental and physical well-being in modern Canadian life.

This research study Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy was made possible in part with support from the RBC Learn to Play Project, an initiative funded by RBC and the Public Health Agency of Canada and delivered in partnership with ParticipACTION, with additional support from Mitacs.

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