3 Leisure-Related Behaviors That May Contribute to Rising Rates of Adult Obesity in Canada

Earlier in the week, the latest obesity rates for those 18 and over in Canada made the news with the release of a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Obesity is on the rise with rates having tripled since 1985 (from 6% to 18% in 26 years and an expectation these rates will be 21% by 2019).

Having worked with families with an obese child, I’ve had the opportunity to witness first hand the struggles families (both parents and children) face in living healthy lives in today’s society. I have had a chance to discuss with families what their individual leisure time looks like (for parents) and what their family leisure involves. From that research, across the 60 + families I worked with over a 5 year period, I learned about the variety of factors that influenced the leisure lives of these families. However, three leisure-related behaviors were common across the families – lack of time, preference for sedentary pursuits, and eating out as leisure. As I’ve done more research into Canadian statistics related to a couple of these factors, it is clear that it wasn’t just the families that I worked with who engage in these behaviors that may be contributing to rising rates of adult obesity.

Obesity and Leisure Behaviour

While there is a genetic component to obesity, the calories we consume and the calories we burn (through physical activity, for example) play a significant role in the obesity problem. We consume too many calories and don’t burn enough of the calories we consume. Research makes the case that individuals need to control sugar and fat intake, eat more healthy food, exercise more, etc. I wanted to take a deeper look at how our leisure-related behaviors that were common among the families I spoke with might be influencing calorie consumption and energy expenditure.

1. We Use “Lack of Time” as the Reason for Not Being Active. This was a common reason why parents told me they had trouble incorporating more activity into their family’s daily life. I’ve discussed the idea of time use and priorities in other blog posts, but it is worth repeating. The way we prioritize aspects of our lives and what we make room for influences our leisure behavior. Really, it is not “lack of time” that contributes to my inactivity or poor food choices, it is not setting activity or healthy eating as a priority (and organizing and living my life as if it is a priority). Or, I’m not active because I’m not motivated, or because I may not have energy left after a difficult day. Citing “lack of time” as a reason for not doing something allows us to surrender responsibility for our time and our decisions related to how we use it. It also stops us from really getting at what might be the core reasons we are not doing certain things that we know are beneficial (e.g., don’t enjoy activity; would rather socialize at lunch than go for a walk).

It is not an easy task to reorganize priorities, especially when you are part of a family where your personal priorities may be in conflict with the priorities of others. A first step may involve getting family members to develop attitudes toward active living that will support it being a priority. Another step might be to keep a time diary to better understand what time you and your family members do have and where that time it is going. Once you know how your time is spent, you can determine whether it reflects your priorities and start to make adjustments.

2. Sedentary Leisure Pursuits Dominated Leisure Time. Many of the families I worked with enjoyed sedentary pursuits (e.g., reading, watching tv, playing video games, play cards) – either alone or as a family. While there are many options available to Canadians for engaging in active recreation, there has also been a trend in people choosing and finding some level of satisfaction in pursuits that are sedentary. Social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) provide opportunities for connecting with others; maintaining knowledge of current events; and searching for information related to hobbies, interests, or roles that individuals play (e.g., parent, coach, domestic engineer). In fact, Canadians consume content from over 100 websites and approximately 4,000 web pages per month.

There are many studies that have linked television watching to obesity, and men and women who are frequent television viewers are more likely to be inactive in their leisure time. Depending on the statistics you locate, the average Canadian adult, when indicating how time at home is spent, watches between 20 and 30 hours of television a week. Television viewing is often hypothesized as an activity that replaces engagement in physical activity and it is understandable that if 20 to 30 hours a week are spent watching television, this choice is likely being made over choices to engage in active leisure.

Almost 60% of Canadians age 12 or older can be classified as social media networkers (approximately 13 Million Canadians) and a recent report, 2012 Canada Digital Future in Focus, indicated the average Canadian is spending about 45 hours a month browsing the Internet. Statistics compiled by the Television Bureau of Canada in 2012 found the average 18- to 49-year-old spent 23 hours per week online. Those in the age range of 18 to 24 watched less television (a mere 14 hours per week), but were online 31 hours per week.

This means that the “average” Canadian is either watching television or is on the Internet for between 6.8 days (163 hours) and 7.5 days (180 hours) per month. Some of this time could involve activity (e.g., watching television while on the treadmill at the gym or at home), but there is no specific data on how much of this time might be active. Also, it is possible that some individuals are online while watching television which would lessen the amount of total time spent on these activities combined. People may also be engaging in activities online that were previously done offline (e.g., reading the newspaper) meaning more time on the Internet but less time reading. In this scenario, we could argue that there has been a shift in time spent in one sedentary activity to another. While the increased television and Internet time is likely sedentary activity, more research is needed to understand exactly how much more sedentary Canadians are than they have been in the past. However, even if all the Internet and television time was occurring at the same time, that would be between 20 and 30 hours of sedentary leisure per week. Cutting back on 7 hours a week would allow for 60 minutes of active leisure each day of the week.

3. Eating Out Has Become a Common, Social Leisure Behavior. Many of the families I interviewed talked about eating out as a family activity. While it obviously fulfilled the need to eat, parents often saw it as an opportunity to spend time together. As Canadians feel more time pressed (e.g., long hours working, longer commute times because of urban sprawl), eating out or getting take out is often a solution for getting fed without needing to take the time to cook a meal or pack a lunch. Beyond the functional role that eating out plays (e.g., nourishing our bodies when we feel there is no time to cook), there is a social component to eating out that, similar to the families I worked with, appeals to many Canadians. For example, a 2010 Ipsos Reid and the Canadian Restaurant Food Association study found 35% of Canadians prefer the restaurant, pub, or bar as their number one place to socialize with friends and family. Another 12% of people prefer socializing at the movies (and how many of us pass up the movie snacks). For Canadians who are 55 years of age and older, 42.3% chose eating out at a restaurant as the number one social activity.

Eating out as part of their social activity in and of itself might not be harmful if it weren’t for the frequency. One study found 60% of Canadians eat in restaurants once a week and an average Atlantic Canadian or Ontarian eats out twice a week. Eating out more frequently is associated with obesity, higher body fatness, or higher BMI (e.g., Chung, Popkin, Domino, & Stearns, 2007; Kruger, Blanck, & Gillespie, 2008). So, it just may be that the ways in which individuals are connecting socially or prefer to engage socially are also contributing to a greater consumption of calories.

It may be worth considering how personal and family leisure behaviors contribute to our individual health and not just as it concerns body weight and obesity.

  • What leisure can you prioritize that will improve your health and well-being?
  • Can you substitute some of your sedentary behaviors for more active pursuits? Can you find 30 minutes a day to be more active? Can you give up 30 minutes of something you are already doing for a more active pursuit?
  • Are there other ways to connect socially that don’t involve eating high calorie foods or being sedentary (e.g., Facebook),
  • If you do eat out in restaurants or pubs as part of your social leisure, are there ways you can eat more healthy?

Food for thought.


Chung, S., Popkin, B. M., Domino, M. E., & Stearns, S. C. (2007). Effect of retirement on eating out and weight change:  An analysis of gender differences. Obesity, 15(4), 1053-1060.

Kruger, J., Blanck, H. M., & Gillespie, C. (2008). Dietary practices, dining out behavior, and physical activity correlates of weight loss maintenance. Preventing chronic disease, 5(1).


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3 thoughts on “3 Leisure-Related Behaviors That May Contribute to Rising Rates of Adult Obesity in Canada

  1. zuludelta45 April 25, 2014 at 12:32 am Reply

    I liked your blog. Here’s a little NHL humor from my blog! Zulu Delta

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jean August 23, 2014 at 7:14 pm Reply

    This is where I would ask people to think about living in areas that offer active transportation options. Physical activity and human powered mobility is built directly into daily lifestyle by becoming less car-dependent.

    Many cycling infrastructure planners and advocates, will present the reality that over 40% of our daily trips by car is within a 10 km. radius or a lot less. We have to actively design or redesign our communities that promote walking, lower car speeds for pedestrian and cycling safety, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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