Two new studies of fitness levels in children have found that Canadian kids are middle of the pack worldwide, that youngsters are generally meeting national movement and fitness guidelines, and that income levels are a strong predictor of physical activity.

A worldwide study of the aerobic fitness of kids aged 9 to 17 across 50 countries found Canada ranked 19th, well behind the five fittest countries of Tanzania, Iceland, Estonia, Norway and Japan, but well ahead of the U.S, which ranked 47th, and Mexico, which came in dead last.

“If all the kids in the world were to line up for a race, the average American child would finish at the foot of the field,” said Dr. Grant Tomkinson, senior author, associate professor, University of North Dakota. “Canada, on the other hand, fared moderately well placing just above middle of the pack. This study is the largest of its kind so it’s exciting to have this evidence at hand.”

The study, published Wednesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, measured the activity of 1.1 million kids and was produced by a research team co-led from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEo) and the University of North Dakota.

“Kids who are aerobically fit tend to be healthy; and healthy kids are apt to be healthy adults. So studying aerobic fitness in the early years is very insightful to overall population health,” said Justin Lang, lead author of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity research group at CHEO.

“It’s important to know how kids in Canada or America fare on the world stage, for example, because we can always learn from other countries with fitter kids.”

Another key finding of the study is that income inequality – the gap between rich and poor – is strongly linked to aerobic fitness. Children and youth from countries with a small gap between rich and poor appear to have better fitness, say the authors.

That echoes the findings of a Statistics Canada report, also issued Wednesday, which found household income level is a strong determinant of a young child’s likelihood of meeting national activity guidelines.

The study found that 73 per cent of three- and four-year-olds are reaching the recommended 180 minutes a day of activity, though it also concluded more than three-quarters of them spend more than the recommended one hour per day in front of a screen.

And only 30 per cent of five-year-olds were active for the recommended 60 minutes a day, though 76 per cent of them are not exceeding the maximum recommended screen time of two hours per day. The study found girls were less likely than boys to reach the minimum activity levels.

Didier Garriguet, a senior researcher with Statistics Canada, told CTV News Channel that guidelines call for 180 minutes of any level of physical activity for three- and four-year-olds, but specify that five-year-olds should be getting an hour of moderate to vigorous activity daily.

“So it’s activity that will make you out of breath, for example. So it’s harder to reach that level of physical activity. That’s why we see the discrepancy between the two,” he said.

“At that age we actually measure it every 15 seconds because their activity is very sporadic. They run for two minutes or they run for 30 seconds. It’s really a measure of what they’re doing, not something like training.”

Garriguet says researchers looked at a number of variables, including the age of the mother, the presence of siblings in the home and the education level of the household. The only factor that had an effect on the results was household income level.

Running around a playground — and spending less time staring at a screen — does more than combat the scourge of childhood obesity. The study says children who are physically active get a boost in the development of their motor skills and social skills.

Getting kids used to being physically active also develops positive life-long habits, says Allana LeBlanc, an exercise physiologist with ParticipACTION.

"Kids will model after their parents, especially the young kids. If they see us on our screens all the time, they want to do that as well. So if we can get them active and get them used to being active at a young age across all intensities, just moving around, moving around inside and outside away from screens, that will follow them the rest of their lives."

She encourages parents with kids in different age groups to always aim for the lowest screen time recommendations.

“It’s better for everyone’s health… Reduce the screen time, turn it off and get outside. You’re more likely to meet the physical activity guidelines and meet the screen time guidelines.”

-With files from The Canadian Press