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Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #6: Fresh Air and Exercise

There’s an amusing anecdote in The English Gentleman, a humourous exposé of English upper-class life by Douglas Sutherland. In it, the author instructs us on the various ways one might master gentlemanly behaviour, from the dining hall to the hunting field:

He must also realise that once he is in the saddle he must be as rude as possible to anyone who crosses his path. One quasi-gentleman, when he was asked by the Master what the devil he thought he was doing out hunting, was naïve enough to reply that he only came out for the fresh air and exercise. ‘In that case you had better go home and bugger yourself with a pair of bellows,’ thundered the Master, riding off in pursuit of another victim for his scorn (91).

I mention this for two reasons: one is that in 1978, when the book was published, it was a natural response to the question of what one is doing outside: fresh air and exercise. The fact that the ‘quasi-gentleman’ answered without thinking allowed the ‘Master’ to take advantage of the idiom, which I (growing up in the 1970s) heard all the time from my mother as she closed the screen door behind me and sent me out into the world. I was not to come back until lunch time, after which I would be out again until dark. This seems, sadly, no longer to be the case for our young people .

The second is that we have, if you will pardon the expression, well and truly buggered ourselves on this front. Somehow, my generation, ignoring our own childhood experiences of endless summer days, independent adventure, creativity, and blissful activity outdoors for its own sake, have transformed the notion of ‘outside’ from “the natural and salubrious habitat of a child” to “the weird and unnatural habitat of paedophiles and/or early death”. In a single generation, it seems that the natural “roaming range” of a child at play has declined to one-ninth its former area! Have a look at this unsettling picture, from Britain’s Daily Mail:

This trend seems to be accelerating: the percentage of Canadian kids who play outside after school has dropped 14% over the last decade alone, and 46% of Canadian kids now get 3 hours or less of active play per week, including weekends.

The consequences of this sudden trend to raise children in captivity to children’s mental  and physical health have been enormous and well documented. For complex social reasons, children are now subject to restrictions on their movements and activities that outnumber those of incarcerated felons. In one of the worst examples of Newspeak that I have witnessed, we justify our shameful treatment of young people by claiming that it is in their best interest.

Many go so far as to blame children for being lazy: the typical response of colonisers to the colonised. Create conditions that are so unhealthy and oppressive that, in order to survive, the victims adapt and change their behaviour. Then blame them for that behaviour and use it to justify further control and oppression.

Kids are not naturally lazy. In a recent global study, playing outside with friends was the single most popular choice of activity for children around the world. They don’t want to just sit quietly, allaying their parents’ worries: depression rates in children are skyrocketing. They’re fatter, sicker, stiller and sadder than any kid in history. In Canada, 92% of kids say they would rather play outside than watch TV. So why, why, why are they spending on average almost 8 hours a day in front of screens – as much time as you or I might spend at a full-time job??

The answer: Parental anxiety. Parents’ fears for children’s safety have turned them into (in the words of one child welfare spokesperson in the U.K.) “Battery chickens”. These parental fears are almost totally uncalled for. As experts have repeatedly pointed out, contrary to media-distorted perception, the world is not becoming more dangerous. Crime levels are at or below the idyllic levels of Baby-Boomer childhood days. Violent crime is especially low, as is death from disease or accident. We are the safest people ever to walk the planet, as Stephen Pinker points out in this TED talk:

In fact, we’re so safe it’s becoming dangerous. Everyone has seen for themselves that “kids are getting fatter these days”. But that seems sort of benign, next to the horrific fears of pedophile abduction that popular culture forces on the imaginations of parents everywhere. So let’s look at the consequences of sedating our children.


In short, inactivity is killing our children slowly. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that, for the first time in history, our children’s lifespan could be 2-5 years less than our own.  This is despite the fact of our increasing safety, mentioned above, and despite the fact that this appears to be entirely avoidable: fit individuals outlive unfit individuals across the board, including all causes of death. Regular physical activity is associated with as much as a 30% reduction in all causes of mortality.

Some fun facts from the ParticipACTION site (remember them? I used to have a jacket sewn all over with medals of theirs…one of my proudest moments as a kid was earning a gold one year):

• The number of obese children has tripled in the last 3 decades.

• That means that 26% of our kids are overweight or obese. That’s 1 in 4. By the time they reach adulthood, that same percentage will be fully obese.

• Sport participation rates in Canadian youth aged 15-18 declined from 77% in 1992 to 59% in 2005. Adults continue the trend: Canadian adult participation in sport declined from 45% in 1992 to 28% in 2005.

• What is killing our kids? Car accidents, mostly. But if they make it to adulthood, it’s heart disease, possibly cancer. Inactivity contributes strongly to more than 25 chronic conditions, many of which are potentially fatal: coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, breast cancer, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

• The link is strong, and causal: inactivity doesn’t just exacerbate illnesses – it causes them. Physical inactivity is estimated to cause 21-25% of breast cancers and colon cancers, 27% of diabetes and 30% of ischemic heart disease.

• Physical inactivity – let’s be clear – is deadly. It is one of the five leading global risk factors for mortality and is estimated to cause 2 million deaths per year. Now a paper in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet is calling for exercise to be listed as a vital sign, alongside pulse and respiratory rate.

• For the first time in history, obesity is responsible for more deaths than being underweight, worldwide.

• This is, by all normal definitions, an epidemic. And a big one. In lower-income countries, it is comparable to two of the biggest, scariest health scourges on Earth: HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. And yet, we’re apparently doing nothing about it. This is despite the fact that, repeatedly, Health Care is reported to be the #1 topic of concern to Canadians.

Even if you define ‘concern’ as merely referring to the cost associated with it, we’re being obtuse. The estimated costs of obesity and physical inactivity are as high as $7.1 billion a year, as of 2008. Add in the costs associated with reduced productivity, and you’ve got what should be a massive financial incentive to get our kids outside.


Children are experiencing depression and anxiety at earlier ages than ever before. Now, Statistics Canada has found that 6.5% of youth and young adults between 15 and 24 had major depression last year. That’s more than 250, 000 kids. I recently attended a mental health seminar at the school I work at in Ontario. We were told that, out of a population of 1500, four students know a peer who has committed suicide in the last year. In terms of the whole city, in a population of around 22 500 high school students, 48.7% of male students and 47.9% of females had experienced depression during their high school careers; 45% of the males had never admitted it to anyone, suggesting that the alarming rates of teen depression in the news are actually underreported.

I can’t help but feel that the answer to these problems is the same one my mum had, all those years: Fresh air and exercise. And there’s a growing body of research to back her up. Let’s break it down:


Defined as ‘being outside in nature’. Parental fear of strangers and traffic have contributed to the decline of unstructured, unsupervised, outdoor play. 71 % of today’s mothers said they recalled playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 % of them allow their kids to play outdoors daily. Most Canadians (75%) got their primary opportunities to experience the outdoors through school programmes, many of which are now being cut. Even recess has become a thing of the past in many schools in North America.

So few kids get out into nature these days that Richard Louv has coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the array of symptoms that could be allayed or eliminated with more contact with the natural world. These include:

• ADHD: even marginal exposure to nature alleviates many symptoms

• Vitamin D deficiency

• Myopia:  do more kids wear glasses these days, or is it me?

• Asthma

• Stress, anxiety, and depression

Check out this infographic, from the David Suzuki Foundation:

These are over and above the benefits of just plain ol’ exercise, and the reduction of obesity-related morbidity, mentioned above. In fact, exercise in a natural setting seems to have more benefits than exercise alone – even the sight of green spaces through a hospital window has been linked to faster recovery times from surgery!  The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science posits a direct relationship between biodiversity and human mental health.  Even five minutes of exposure to nature has significant positive mental/emotional impact.


The benefits are huge, and the drawbacks are nonexistent. Why do we not just do this? Remember, kids want exercise. All we have to do is get out of their way. Seriously: that might be it. We might be able to cure one of the biggest epidemic health threats to our children just by calming the hell down and stepping back. According to Dr W.H. Dietz,

Opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity. Reducing the amount of time that children are allowed to watch television is one strategy that offers children opportunities for activity, and it is likely to alter requests for advertised foods as well.

The physical advantages of exercise should be obvious; what might not be so blatant are the psychological, neurological, and cognitive benefits it confers. I previously reported on an open letter by hundreds of mental health professionals across the world, calling on the return of unstructured, unsupervised play as a potential cure for many of the psychological woes suffered by our children these days.

But there’s more: lots more.

One of the ways that parents interfere with children’s fresh air and exercise is an inappropriate, status-driven obsession with academic performance.  As is so often the case with these things, the obsessive behaviour actually brings about the very outcome they are trying to avoid. Regular exercise in fact increases attention, focus, memory, critical thinking, and overall cognitive ability.

Further to the treatment of ADD and ADHD by exposure to nature, discussed above, exercise has also been shown to have a positive effect .

It has been shown to increase brain function and (what is critical) plasticity, allowing for amazing advantages ranging from recovery from brain injury to increased ability to learn to a reduced risk of dementia.

Aerobic exercise has even been linked to neurogenesis: that is, it triggers the growth of new brain cells, something that people used to think was impossible. This was shown to have an effect even in the brains of depressed people, where it is normally reduced. The reduction of cortisol, a stress hormone, may be implicated in this.

It has also been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, which has an overall, generalised beneficial effect on executive cognitive function. Study subjects showed marked improvement in areas such as “tasks that require planning, working memory, multitasking, [and] resistance to distraction.” Mental exercises, by contrast, tend to be task-specific in the way they improve cognition.

Exercise prevents memory loss by reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. It also has a positive effect on sleep patterns and insomnia in adolescents, which is at the root of all kinds of health and cognitive detriments.

After a study by a Harvard medical team, even our very own Canadian national emblem, the Mounties of the RCMP, have adopted a fitness programme for their officers – not to keep them fit so they can chase criminals, but specifically for the improvement of their cognitive functions. They’ve invested in fitness programmes for their inspectors to help them solve crimes.

So with all these common-sense, obvious, well-documented benefits of fresh air and exercise, how have we allowed our own groundless anxieties to rob our children of the world of nature, and possibly of their very future? I’ll explore some of that in my next post.

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