The statistics on childhood obesity in Canada are alarming. The Canadian government is responding to rising rates of childhood obesity in a variety of ways. One recent federal initiative designed to get kids off the couch is a tax credit for parents who register their children in physical activity programs.
The Children’s Fitness Tax Credit applies to expenses of up to $500 a year on activities for a child under 16.
The eligibility criteria are designed to encourage parents to choose activities that are really going to make a difference in their child’s fitness level.
Many groups that organize community team sports leagues for young people are publicizing the new tax credit, as its rules and requirements mesh well with their programs.
Child health and fitness experts welcome the tax credit as well, saying that anything we can do to get kids moving is a good thing.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” says Dianne Gillespie, Norwood/North Central Edmonton Community Co-ordinator for Healthy Alberta Communities.
“I am encouraged by the government’s proactive approach,” adds Jane Vallentyne, Professor, Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, University of Alberta.
Gillespie, Vallentyne and their professional colleagues also suggest, however, that parents talk with their children about what activities they would enjoy before filling out a form for a tax-credit-eligible program. First and foremost, they say, the activity should be something the child will enjoy.
Too Many Children Are at Risk
Although diet is a major cause of children’s increasing weight, their level of physical activity is also extremely important.
Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Children and Youth recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily. But the research suggests that as many as 91 per cent of children today are not meeting this standard.
“Childhood obesity is an epidemic,” says Gillespie. “Type 2 diabetes, previously diagnosed only in adults, is now appearing in children.
Western society is raising kids who spend their leisure hours on screen time.”
Statistics Canada confirms Gillespie’s perceptions. In 2004, 36 per cent of children aged six to 11 logged more than two hours of screen time each day (for example, TV, the Internet and video games).
These children were twice as likely to be overweight or obese as those whose daily viewing lasted an hour or less.
Is Your Child’s Program Eligible for the Tax Credit?
Programs that are eligible for the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit must be ongoing, supervised and suitable for children.
They must also contribute to cardio-respiratory endurance plus one or more of muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and balance.
Typically, eligible programs are held once a week for at least eight weeks. Participants should be active 90 per cent of the time. For details about what is and is not eligible for this program, go to http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/whtsnw/chcklst-eng.html.
Choosing the Right Program for Your Child
So, you want to encourage your inactive child to take up some kind of fitness activity. But what should that activity be?
There are two aspects to this question. First, will the program actually provide the regular and vigorous activity you’re looking for? And second, will your child enjoy it and want to continue (at least for a year or a season, but possibly for a lifetime)?
For Vallentyne, the bottom line is finding an activity the child views as “positive, meaningful, engaging and stimulating.”
She stresses that children should not be asked to participate in activities that they find uncomfortable or humiliating.
“Talk to your children, and find out what they want,” Vallentyne says.
“A child might be fascinated by an accuracy sport such as archery, which may not improve cardiovascular endurance but will provide a positive experience with physical activity. This positive experience is more important and enduring than a quick return on fitness.
“Very young children benefit from being exposed to a range of activities that provide a lot of variety and take into account their high level of energy.
“A child who is more socially oriented may choose an activity that their friends are involved in, while achievement-oriented children may prefer very competitive sports.”
Another part of ensuring a positive experience for your child, Vallentyne says, is checking out the instructor’s skill and experience.
“Look for someone who is knowledgeable about child development,” she says, “and someone who enjoys and respects children and youth.
“The instructor should know how to modify activities so that everyone in the group can feel successful.”
Gilda, an Edmonton mother of six, also stresses the importance of letting your children decide which activity to participate in.
“I would rather have my children view their extracurricular activity programs and eating habits as lifestyle choices,” she says.
“I encourage my kids to do what they want to do,” Gilda says. “But I do ask them to commit. The rule is that, once they make a choice, they will play the season out.”
Several of Gilda's children are heavily involved in team sports such as basketball, volleyball, hockey, ringette and soccer, but only because they want to be.
One child has chosen to walk the dog to and from school instead. “I don’t push them,” she says.
“For several of my children these sports are more of a social thing, and the fitness benefits are a bonus.”
Encouraging Children to Be Active
The federal government’s Children’s Fitness Tax Credit promises to help families who want their children to maintain a healthy weight, helping them to prevent disease and other physical problems.
The Canada Revenue Agency has eligibility criteria that meet fitness experts’ standards for activity levels (basically, 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day).
This is all good news, but fitness experts note as well that parents must first carefully consider their children’s needs.
If the activity that is right for their child happens to fit in with the requirements of the tax credit program, so much the better.
As Professor Vallentyne says, “Forcing kids to get fit may be counterproductive.
“Children must feel good about being active. If they participate in something that makes them feel confident and competent, they are more likely to continue it into adulthood.”
Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines
The guidelines for all age groups can be found here.
Canadian Revenue Agency, Eligibility Checklist
Checklist to help parents determine whether their child’s program is eligible.
Canadian Revenue Agency, Information for Parents
Information for parents about the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit.