TORONTO - Canadians of all ages have become substantially fatter and less fit over the last two decades, the first comprehensive attempt to measure the fitness of the nation since 1981 has revealed.
The Canadian Health Measures Survey found that nearly two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese and a quarter of children share that boat with them.
A prominent Canadian obesity researcher said the figures point to a country in crisis.
"Well, if you look at those numbers I'd be very surprised to see what actually qualifies as a national crisis if this does not," said Dr. Arya Sharma, chair of obesity studies at the University of Alberta and scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network.
Another researcher who focuses on the distribution of fat on the body and its impact on health was struck by the sharp increase in rates of Canadians who are carrying belly fat. Carrying fat around the middle is much more damaging for one's health than excess weight at the hips and buttocks.
"The information on the rates of abdominal obesity, particularly in older adults, is absolutely astonishing," said Ian Janssen, an assistant professor with the Centre for Obesity Research and Education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
"When you look at the prevalence or percentage that have abdominal obesity, it's two-thirds.... That's unbelievable. That's increased from 26 per cent in women in 1981 and 23 per cent in men in 1981. So we're seeing bigger increases in abdominal obesity than in overall obesity."
The lead researcher for the project, Mark Tremblay, said the findings confirm the perceptions of those involved in the field.
"I think our worst fears have been validated - the fitness of the nation has declined dramatically in the last generation," said Tremblay, who runs the Healthy Activity Living and Obesity research unit at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.
Where some had argued that the increasing size and weight of Canadians meant they were becoming more muscle-bound, the study shows that isn't the case.
"We're becoming fatter, we're not becoming stronger and more muscular. All indices of fatness are getting worse. So waist circumference, skin fold measurements, body mass index are all deteriorating, as is strength, flexibility as well."
The survey, conducted by Statistics Canada, is based on extensive health and fitness data collected from 5,000 people aged six through 79 across the country. The data were collected between March 2007 and February 2009. A second round of the survey is currently underway.
Tremblay said the first round of data reveal the decline in overall fitness has taken place across all age groups, though it is most marked in children and young adults.
The survey suggests the proportion of Canadians with dangerously large waists went to 21 per cent from five per cent among men, and to 31 per cent from six per cent among women.
The average waist circumference measurement increased 10 centimetres from 1981, Tremblay noted.
Among youth aged 15 to 19, the percentage whose waist circumference put them at an increased or high risk of health problems more than tripled.
Most recent attempts to track Canadian fitness have used self-reported data, which has been shown to be unreliable when it comes to issues like weight, calorie intake and the amount of physical activity undertaken.
Here researchers actually gathered the data, measuring things like height, weight and waist circumference and conducting strength and flexibility tests.
The study also measured key health indicators like blood pressure and collected blood and urine samples that will provide additional information on things like Canadians' exposure to toxins.
Much of those data are still being analyzed. It is expected that scores of studies will result from or draw on the findings over the next few years.