Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Go For The Bronze

There's this common joke in Canada that we don't go for the gold, but rather, we shoot for bronze. In all our modesty and an unusually high tendency to not want to make others feel bad, Canadians have typically tried to underperform or perform below the radar, as we don't like to appear boastful or full of ourselves. But it looks like the standard may be set a little too low, as the Public Health Agency of Canada is now looking at lowering fitness targets for Canadians in an effort to encourage more of us to be active.

You don't need to be any special kind of mathematician to know that this will fail. Various education systems have tried the same thing and it only appears to have made people dumber. Take this example: in the past, schools have tried to maintain a high level of academic excellence by making the minimum pass mark 60%. This move didn't impact the smart kids already sitting over 80, nor did it encourage the slower kids sitting in at 50, who had to try harder to grab that extra 10 percent just to pass and not be left behind. The truth is, a lot of those kids were simply left behind, with scolding parents who bemoaned the loss of a few extra points and tried to butter up teachers after the fact to get them.

But when the percentage dropped from 60% to 50%, those kids didn't try harder and their parents were then saved the trouble of cajoling or threatening hapless teachers during parent-teacher night. The group that did change was the range that sits between 60-70- who let themselves slide because they knew that they would pass anyway. Like most kids that age, school is not about doing your best; it's about getting ahead while doing the least work possible so that you have enough time for friends. It's sad, but true. When the standards are lowered, many of us will let ourselves slide as far as we can without being called out.

An article on on this topic states:
"A poll commissioned by the CBC suggests 42 per cent of adults say they get no vigorous exercise and 34 per cent of youth get fewer than two hours per week — what one exercise expert calls a "public health crisis of inactivity."

It also goes on to say:
"Canada's new physical activity guidelines, due later this month from the Public Health Agency of Canada, lower the targets to 60 minutes a day for kids and 150 minutes a week for adults — changes that reflect the latest research and harmonize standards with the World Health Organization and U.S. and U.K. authorities."

No offense to either the US or the UK, but in terms of physical activity and lifestyles, they aren't exactly models for Canada. We've always prided ourselves on the fact that things may be bad in Canada, but they're not as bad as they are elsewhere. Worldwide obesity rates actually place Canada behind both the US and the UK, so harmonizing with their standards for physical activity is, quite frankly, a step backwards.

The experts argue that some activity is better than none, and that by lowering the standards, they're hoping to encourage more people to engage in physical activity. But given the example of what has happened when this same principle is applied to education, it doesn't seem likely that this will yield better results for physical activity.

To be successful in school and to be physically fit require the same things: discipline, hard work and dedication. If you don't commit to homework, put time into and force yourself to do it every night, you won't get the kind of results that end in happy face stickers on your papers. The same holds true for going to the gym or taking a brisk walk. Lowering the standards isn't the solution. Standards should be high or else nobody would care too much if you achieve them or not.

One hilarious fact that came out of this survey:
"In the survey, 45 per cent of young people 12 to 17 years old said they don't exercise because they don't have time."

Not to get down on the young people here, but honestly? When you consider that the average school day is 6 hours, the average commute round trip is 1 hour and the average homework time is 2 hours, kids are still lacking 30-40 minutes for physical activity? I guess when you factor the 2 hours of self-grooming, the 12 hours of sleep and video game time, well, the day disappears pretty fast.

But it's not just the young people. It's also the parents that are setting a bad example by not making physical activity a priority in their lives. Which is a shame, when you consider that this is one of the best ways to get family time. It's also cheap and easy, requiring no gym membership or special equipment. A family hike, walk or bike is a great way to create real memories and do something good together.

The standards shouldn't be lowered. They should be set high. They should be set high so that we want to achieve them, not just because they're there, but because we want to do it for ourselves and it makes us feel good. The Public Health Agency of Canada shouldn't back track on this one; they should finally go for the gold.

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