Lasting legacy or empty science? Youth physical activity and the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games

Dr. John Cairney

With the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games only a few weeks away, there is lots of attention in the media about the incredible talents of these athletes and excitement about Canada’s chances. There is also ongoing discussion (even debate) about what the legacy of these games will be to the host communities in Ontario, including Hamilton, where the soccer matches will be held. It is hoped that that the Games will leave not only valuable infrastructure, such as new or upgraded sporting venues, but also that the performance of these athletes will inspire all children and youth (adults too), including the next generation of young stars, to participate.

But what evidence is there to support the claim that hosting games such as Pan Am/Parapan Am or the Olympics will increase participation in sport and physical activity in children and youth? The answer is, little to none. In fact, if you plot Canada’s medal performance (success at winning medals in the Olympics over time) against the rate of obesity in the population (BMI), there is actually a positive correlation. In other words, at the same time Canada has won more medals, the prevalence of obesity in the population has increased. At least with regard to unhealthy weight, owning the podium has not helped improve the health of Canadians. When you add this to the potential for incurring significant debt (the 1976 Montreal Olympics resulted in a $1.2 Billion debt), which is largely borne by the public, it is reasonable to ask: is there any real benefit to hosting elite, amateur sport competitions? (It should be noted there is evidence that hosting major games does lead to positive impacts on tourism and employment at least during the time of the Games). We need to be very cautious regarding any claims that hosting the Games leads to any positive behavior changes in children and youth, at least at the population level.

But even if your little one is inspired to strap on the cleats and play soccer (or hit the gym, the pool etc.), we still have to be concerned about the relationship between sport participation and physical activity in children and youth. The benefits of physical activity to child health are well known.

Current guidelines for children recommend 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, 7 days a week. Remember: moderate to vigorous means the child’s heart should be pumping faster, sweating may be noticeable and breathing should be heavier, compared to when a child is playing lightly or sitting down. Too many parents believe that signing a child up for sports should take care of physical activity for the week. Yet, if you reflect for just a moment on this, how many children play sports for 7 hours in a week? (Sadly, some children do and this creates other problems, most importantly burnout, something I will discuss in a future blog). Also, and this is especially true for younger children, how much time during a practice or game is actually spent in moderate to vigorous activity? If you have been to a park or diamond to watch children under 10 play soccer, t-ball/baseball lately, you will surely question whether any child is getting 60 minutes of physical activity. Sport participation on its own is simply not enough.

Let me be clear, I am not anti-Games or anti-child/youth sport - quite the opposite in fact. There are many benefits to sport beyond just physical activity (learning to play as a part of a team; experiencing competition to name just a few). And, I will be going with my family to several events to cheer Canada on when the Games start here and in Toronto. I am a fan and a supporter of sport for positive child and youth development.

What I would say though is this: let’s not hold unrealistic expectations for either the Games or sport participation in general, especially in relation to physical activity. It is not surprising that ParticipACTION recommends children play more outside, engage in more risky play (within reason of course), and that adults allow children to play without direct supervision. Children have a much better chance at meeting recommended guidelines when free, unstructured play is allowed to occur. Sport has a role to play for sure, but it is not the only answer.