Old Order Mennonite Children Leaner, Stronger and Fitter Than Children Living Contemporary Canadian Lifestyle

A new study funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Information’s Canadian Population Health Initiative shows that Old Order Mennonite children from Ontario living a similar lifestyle to that of previous generations tend to be fitter, stronger and leaner than children living a contemporary Canadian lifestyle—this despite the fact they do not have physical education classes and do not participate in organized sports. New analyses by obesity expert Dr. Mark S. Tremblay and a group of researchers from the University of Saskatchewan and University of Lethbridge found a strong link between contemporary lifestyles in Canadian children and reduced physical activity and fitness. “What this study proves is that you don’t need to do triathlons to stay fit and active,” says Dr. Tremblay, a Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. “Children living traditional lifestyles have exercise embedded in their daily lives. In contrast, today’s children engage more in passive activities, such as video games. This may go a long way in explaining why they are less physically fit.” The study found that Old Order Mennonite children, on average, do up to 18 minutes more moderate or vigorous physical activity a day than urban and rural contemporary children. Researchers estimate that, all else being equal, this translates into a caloric difference between the Old Order Mennonite children and children living a contemporary lifestyle of approximately 15,000 kcal per year—or over 40 pounds of fat per person, per decade. The Old Order Mennonite children in the study also had leaner triceps than urban Saskatchewan children, a greater aerobic fitness score than rural Saskatchewan children, and greater grip strength than both rural and urban Saskatchewan children. These findings were true for girls and boys. Researchers attribute the Old Order Mennonite children’s strength and fitness to the fact they get a great deal of physical activity through walking, traditional farming activities and household chores. “Since obesity can lead to life-long health problems, including diabetes and heart disease, it may well be worthwhile to look at how aspects of modern lifestyles may contribute to childhood obesity,” says Lisa Sullivan, Manager of Research and Policy at the Canadian Population Health Initiative. “This research gives us a unique glimpse into the past that may help to explain the rising rates of obesity over the past few decades.” Approximately 30% of all the children in the study were classified as overweight—a figure that is consistent with nationally representative data. Methodology A cross-sectional study design was used to examine physical fitness and activity characteristics of three groups of children aged 8 to 13: Old Order Mennonite children from Ontario; Urban Saskatchewan children; and Rural Saskatchewan children. The data collection for this study took place from September to December 2002. Researchers assessed fitness by collecting height, weight, triceps skin fold, grip strength, push-ups, partial curl-ups and aerobic fitness measurements. Also, physical activity levels were measured for seven consecutive days using an accelerometer—an instrument that measures the intensity of body acceleration—and estimated from a self-reported physical activity questionnaire for older children. Canadian Population Health Initiative The Canadian Population Health Initiative (CPHI), which is part of the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), funded the research described in this media release. CPHI supports research to advance knowledge on the determinants of health in Canada and to develop policy options to improve population health and reduce health inequalities. Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) is an independent, pan-Canadian, not-for-profit organization working to improve the health of Canadians and the health care system by providing quality health information. CIHI’s mandate, as established by Canada’s health ministers, is to coordinate the development and maintenance of a common approach to health information for Canada. To this end, CIHI is responsible for providing accurate and timely information that is needed to establish sound health policies, manage the Canadian health system effectively and create public awareness of factors affecting good health. Media contacts: Leona Hollingsworth (613) 241-7860, Ext. 4140 Cell: (613) 612-3915

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