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What Stops Young Immigrants From Being Physically Active?

sharma-obesity-varsity-sportsAs a “not-so-young” immigrant myself, this is a topic that certainly caught my intention.

I can think of a lot of reasons why someone moving to a place like Canada (especially if you moved from somewhere warmer) would be less active but is this really true?

Sadly, it is, as nicely demonstrated in a paper by CON Bootcamper Atif Kukaswadia and colleagues from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, just published in PLOS one.

The researchers looked at Cycle 6 (2009–2010) of the Canadian Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Study and the 2006 Canada Census of Population, which included over 23,000 kids from grades 6–10 in over 400 schools.

It turns out that kids born outside of Canada were about 25% less likely to be active than peers born in Canada.

On a more positive note, however, physical activity levels did tend to increase the longer the kids reported living in Canada.

Nonetheless, South and East Asian youth were significantly less active, regardless of time since immigration.

Although Kukaswadia and colleagues, in time honoured researcher mode, conclude by noting that “more research is needed” to determine the mechanisms by which these differences occur and to identify barriers to physical activity participation among immigrant youth, they do offer a few speculations:

1) being involved in different forms of physical activity.
2) cultural differences in what constitutes physical activity.
3) ethnic differences in extracurricular activity involvement.

I would certainly add that one of the key cultural determinants may well be the stronger emphasis that East and South Asian parents generally place on academic versus athletic performance – the latter being often looked at as a hobby or past-time rather than an essential part of growing up.

I am sure my readers may have other ideas as to the reasons for this observation.

Edmonton, AB

Kukaswadia A, Pickett W, Janssen I (2014) Time Since Immigration and Ethnicity as Predictors of Physical Activity among Canadian Youth: A Cross-Sectional Study. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89509. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089509

1 Comment

  1. Dr. Sharma, look at the number of Olympic medals won by India, a population of over 1 billion! It is a culture where family is everything and individuality is nothing. There is some participation in team sports among certain classes but that’s about it. There is not a significant presence in sport of women or men athletes in individual events like swimming, running, gymnastics etc. There’s nothing to provide an example or an incentive for young people.

    In a culture where girls are still married off under age and the family structure is a stifling tradition, even considering women running on a track wearing shorts and a T shirt is anathema. (Think of the movie, Bend It Like Beckham).

    I wouldn’t put too much expectation for this immigrant community to all of a sudden do a 180 degree turn. Generally their children do not know how to swim! Here, in Canada, where every summer, precisely these children of immigrants are the ones who over-represent drowning victims. (Although not last summer, which was an unusual summer for drowning statistics.)

    My daughter routinely is interviewed by the media before summer because the YMCA offers FREE classes to teach children what to do in the water so they won’t drown. The community response is always disappointing. Even for FREE, parents do not enroll their children. She also runs a FREE teen night on Saturdays which is wildly popular among children of West Indian and African origin. The kids have access to all sorts of group and individual activities. There are summer swim programmes subsidized or paid for by corporations so inner city children whose parents can’t afford fees can learn to swim. The children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent are again totally under-represented. Go to any public pool in Toronto. Look at who goes for adult lane swim at those pools where it is free to attend. (Read Rohinton Mistry’s short story about learning how to swim at Don Mills Collegiate pool in his book ‘Tales of Firozsha Baag’.)

    Brampton is ground zero for Type 2 diabetes. It’s not the only ‘bedroom community’ in the GTA but it has the highest rate for this disease. The Brampton YMCA almost has more staff than members! It’s entirely subsidized by the GTA YMCA and outreach to the local immigrant population and their children has not been effective at all. So it’s not like facilities like that are not available. They surely are. But trying to educate parents to consider physical activity for themselves and their children as a positive, has so far been a non starter.

    Recently a middle school where almost all of the children first generation Canadians whose parents are from various parts of the Indian subcontinent provided an option to a couple of classes: bowling $15, skiing $50. Only a very few parents opted to send their children on the ski trip. They considered the indoor activity both safer and cheaper. I must say, we’ve been having very cold weather this winter, but even in regards to outings during other times of the year, the participation in physical, outdoor activities is not high.

    The computer, iPad, and other technology has further encouraged children to stay indoors. It’s the perfect storm.

    There is also the aspect of ‘fate’ and acceptance in the development of type 2 diabetes and heart and kidney disease with low educational awareness of proactive options. Traditional ways of doing things trumps all even when the traditional way undermines health.

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