Immigrant youth to Canada are less active than Canadians, but only for a little bit

Regular readers of the blog and my Twitter profile will know that my PhD dissertation is focused on the health of young people to Canada. In particular, I’m interested in how their health changes over time – does it get better? Does it get worse? Does it stay the same? And in particular, I’m interested in how they compare to peers born in Canada, and whether this is the same between different ethnic groups.

So, for example, if you took two South Asian kids, one born in Canada and one born abroad, what happens to their health? Is the one born abroad healthier? The same? What about after they move to Canada – if the one born abroad starts off healthier, does that persist, or does that benefit disappear with time?

I did a few interviews for this study with the media, and I’ve embedded them throughout the piece. So if you don’t want to read anymore, just hit play on the video below.

(Note: The video should be 16:9, but Vimeo made it 4:3 and I can’t figure out how to change it. Sorry about that).

Now, there’s been a lot of research on this in the US. But the research in the US has focused on the ethnic groups that are of interest to the US – Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans. In Canada though, the major immigrant groups are from East and South East Asia and South Asia. Combine that with two different views on immigration (melting pot vs multiculturalism), and there’s not much evidence out there for what happens to kids once they move to Canada in terms of their physical health.

And that’s where I come in.

We just had a study published in PLOS ONE that looked specifically at the physical activity of young immigrants to Canada, and how their physical activity changes over time.

What did we do?
The Health Behaviour in School Aged Children Survey (HBSC) is an international survey coordinated by the World Health Organization in 43 countries in Europe and North America. We used data from Cycle 6 of the Canadian HBSC, which had data on approximately 26,000 youth in all provinces and territories in Canada, except PEI and New Brunswick. We categorized kids by ethnic group: Canadian, Arab, African, South Asian, East and South East Asian, Latin American and Other. We also categorized them by how long it had been since they moved to Canada: “1 to 2 years,” “3 to 5 years” “6+ years” and then “born in Canada.”

We then were interested in their physical activity levels, and put them into one of three groups based on the number of days of 60+ minutes of physical activity they reported. The first group was 1-3 days, the second was 4-6 days, and the third was 7 days a week. Only the last group met the Canada Physical Activity Guidelines, but then we were also interested in kids who were close (the 4-6 days a week group).

I was interviewed by Wei Chen for CBC Ontario Morning – take a listen here!

What did we find?
As we expected, kids born outside of Canada were less active than those born in Canada. In fact, only 11% of those born abroad got 7 days a week of 60+ minutes of physical activity compared to 15% among those born in Canada. However, the longer you were in Canada, the higher your physical activity was. For example, while kids who moved here 1-2 years before were much less likely to meet the physical activity guidelines, those who moved here 3-5 or 6+ years ago were just as likely as those born in Canada to meet the guidelines. This is a really positive finding – while their initial levels of physical activity might be low, they correct this really soon after immigrating.

But here’s where things got interesting. When you start looking at this by ethnic group, certain trends emerge. We found that East and South-East Asian youth were less active, regardless of time since immigration. They were less likely to be active on 4–6 days/week (0.67; 0.58–0.79) and 7 days/week (0.37; 0.29–0.48), compared to (White) Canadian peers. So whether they were born in Canada, or whether they just moved here, their physical activity levels were consistently lower than other kids.

What is the take home message?
There a few things you can take from this. We found that immigrant kids were less active than Canadian-born peers, although this difference disappears over time. However, this is impacted by ethnicity, with some groups reporting higher levels of physical activity than others. Perhaps most interesting was how East and South East Asian youth have lower levels of physical activity levels regardless of where they were born or how long they have lived in Canada.

Below is an interview that I did with Philip Till from CKNW Radio in Vancouver.

Throughout the piece, I’ve embedded clips of me talking about the study. Take a listen, and I’d love to hear your thoughts! Does this resonate with your experiences/what you’ve seen? And for my international readers, how does this compare to your countries?

Finally, this study wouldn’t be possible with our funders and the respondents to the HBSC Survey. Thank you all for your support!

Kukaswadia, Atif, William Pickett, and Ian Janssen. “Time Since Immigration and Ethnicity as Predictors of Physical Activity among Canadian Youth: A Cross-Sectional Study.” PloS one 9.2 (2014): e89509. Link:

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