Toddlers and preschoolers should be moving more and sitting less, according to new recommendations that aim to nip the problem of childhood obesity at its earliest ages.

The guidelines urge parents of kids aged one to four to get their kids moving for 180 minutes, or three hours, a day. That doesn't have to mean calisthenics; it could simply mean allowing children to play, crawl or walk – as long as it gets them moving.

By age five, kids should be spending at least 60 minutes, or an hour, a day in "energetic" play, meaning running, jumping around and active playing.

Even babies need to be moving. The guidelines suggest children under one should get active "several times daily" and encouraged to spend time on their tummy or crawling.

As well, kids younger than two years old shouldn't spend any time in front of a screen. That means no TV, and no computers or tablets. For kids aged two to four, screen time should be limited to less than an hour a day.

The guidelines come from a joint committee of members of the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, as well as from ParticipACTION, the not-for-profit organization dedicated to inspiring active living for Canadians.

The guidelines also have the support of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group (CHEO-HALO).

This is the first time that guidelines have ever been released in Canada that offer activity benchmarks and sedentary-time guidelines for preschoolers.

The CSEP and ParticipACTION say that puts Canada at the forefront of this emerging body of research. But it's also a reflection of the fact that Canada is dealing with a growing problem of overweight and even obese children.

Kids' obesity rate climbing

In the last 25 years, the obesity rate among children and youth has nearly tripled. As many as 26 per cent of kids between two and 17 years are now overweight or obese. That number jumps to 41 per cent among First Nations children.

The groups note that research has found that preschoolers tend to spend more than 80 per cent of their waking hours sedentary. As well, many tots are being exposed to screen time too early in life and for too long, they say.

"Regular physical activity is essential at a young age as it contributes to bone and skeletal health, motor skill development, psychosocial health and cognitive development," says Dr. Mark Tremblay, who chaired the committee that drew up the guidelines and who is also the director of CHEO-HALO, in Ottawa.

Tremblay notes that little kids who spend too much time sitting in their early years develop poor habit that can last a lifetime.

"Lifestyle patterns set in the early years predict health outcomes later in life," he said in a statement.

Kelly Murumets, the president and CEO of ParticipACTION, says it's important to get kids outside where they tend to run and play much more than they do inside.

"It is crucial for parents and caregivers to give young children regular opportunities to move more, and it can be as simple as getting outdoors to explore the neighbourhood rather than sitting in front of the TV," she said in a statement.

For younger kids, Murumets says it's important to resist the urge to leave babies and toddlers idle in a high chair, but instead, get them on the floor where they can be reaching, pushing or crawling.

Canada AM's medical specialist Dr. Marla Shapiro notes that getting toddlers moving has more benefits than just keeping their weight in the normal range.

"Motor development and movement is the basis not only for our healthy bones and growth, but in later years, our cognitive and brain development, our social skills, our psycho-social markers, self-esteem, learning, attention – it has incredible benefits," she told CTV's Canada AM Tuesday morning.

All of society can help

The Canadian Pediatric Society, which represents Canada's pediatricians, says it fully supports the guidelines. It, too, advocates 180 minutes of everyday physical activity for kids aged one to four, as well as 60 minutes of moderate-to-intense physical activity every day.

The CPS's guidelines call on doctors to ask parents about physical activity and sedentary behaviour and advise them on how to encourage children to be active.

Dr. Claire LeBlanc, a pediatrician at the Montreal Children's Hospital and the chair of the CPS Healthy Active Living and Sports Medicine Committee, says it should not be just up to parents to promote active lifestyles among children.

"Society needs to make physical activity for children a priority because we all have a role to play, including health care teams, governments, schools, facilities and all levels of decision-makers," he said in a statement.

The Society recommends:

  • Communities maintain safe recreational facilities, including playgrounds, parks, bike paths and sidewalks.
  • Schools should implement compulsory daily physical education for all grades.
  • Governments and communities should create more affordable sport and recreation programming after hours at schools and at local facilities.
  • Television networks should eliminate advertisements that promote unhealthy food and sedentary behaviour during children's programming.