Sedentary behaviour surveillance in Canada: trends, challenges and lessons learned

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In today’s post, Dr. Stephanie Prince Ware, a Research Scientist with the Centre for Surveillance and Applied Research at the Public Health Agency of Canada, describes her study recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. The full study is available here. More on Stephanie can be found at the bottom of this post.


While the field of sedentary behaviour research is fairly recent (but growing rapidly) (1), Canada has had a long-standing history of collecting data on these behaviours through national surveys. More recently, the surveillance of sedentary behaviour among Canadians is directed by the Physical Activity, Sedentary behaviour and Sleep (PASS) Indicators (2,3). PASS uses the most recent and comprehensive data available to report on the sedentary behaviour levels of Canadian children, youth and adults. While measures on surveys have changed to adapt to the changing ways in which Canadians are sedentary (e.g., types of screens) and our knowledge in measurement, it is unclear how this affects the interpretability of historical trends.

International research has indicated that, in general, total sedentary time appears to have remained relatively stable, but the types of sedentary activities we undertake may be changing. As part of this project, we hoped to examine if similar trends exist in Canada. Our objective was two-fold: 1) to take stock of all our Canadian data sources providing measures of sedentary behaviour and 2) to examine trends in sedentary activities across some of our more common surveys.

What did we do?

We did an environmental scan (fancy term for we read through every national survey) to identify questions about sedentary behaviour from all our national survey sources.  We also calculated the point prevalence of self-reported sedentary activities by age group in each year of the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS), the General Social Survey (GSS), and the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) study. We also examined trends in accelerometer-measured sedentary behaviour from the CHMS using unadjusted linear regression.

What did we find?

We found 19 different Canadian surveys that reported on at least one measure of sedentary behaviour.  There was a lot of inconsistency in the measures used both between and within surveys and most used a cross-sectional design making it difficult to examine trends.

Accelerometer-measured sedentary time was essentially stable across all age groups. It is consistently higher in older age groups, with children being the least sedentary (see paper figure 1).

Older adults consistently report watching the most television and this time appears to be increasing. In contrast, it has declined or remained relatively stable in younger age groups. Leisure time spent using a computer has increased over time in all age groups, but is consistently highest in youth and younger adults. While video game play is the least reported leisure sedentary activity, it has increased especially among youth. Overall, total leisure time spent using screen appears to be increasing across all age groups with youth being the greatest leisure users of screens (see paper figure 5).

Canadians report less time reading in leisure time than using screens. In youth and younger adults (18-49 years), reading appears to have remained relatively unchanged, but has declined substantially amongst those aged 50+ years (see paper figure 7).

Time spent in passive travel (sitting in a car, bus, taxi, train, ferry or plane) appears to have increased slowly over the past three decades (see paper figure 8).  Older adults (65+ years) report spending the last amount of time in passive travel, whereas, those aged 35-49 years report the most.

Take-home messages

Assessing the trends in self-reported sedentary activities is difficult as the questions and response options used to obtain estimates have changed often over survey years and differ between surveys.

While total device-assessed levels of sedentary time appear to have remained relatively stable, the time Canadians report spending in sedentary activities, especially during leisure time, appears to have changed. These changes are often age-specific or more pronounced in certain age groups. Youth have and continue to be the greatest users of screens during leisure time and they appear to be swapping out television for other forms of screens.  While older adults remain the lowest users of screens during leisure, they appear to be decreasing time spent reading in favour of television and other electronic devices which may warrant further investigation.


  1. LeBlanc AG, Gunnell KE, Prince SA, Saunders TJ, Barnes JD, Chaput J-P. The ubiquity of the screen: an overview of the risks and benefits of screen time in our modern world. Transl J Am Coll Sports Med. 2017;2(17):104–13.
  2. Roberts KC, Butler G, Branchard B, Rao DP, Otterman V, Thompson W, et al. The Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Sleep (PASS) Indicator Framework. Health Promot Chronic Dis Prev Can. 2017;37(8):252–6.
  3. Butler GP, Roberts KC, Kropac E, Rao DP, Branchard B, Prince SA. At-a-glance – Conceptualizing a framework for the surveillance of physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep in Canada. Health Promot Chronic Dis Prev Can. 2019;39(5):201–4.


Prince, S.A., Melvin, A., Roberts, K.C. et al. Sedentary behaviour surveillance in Canada: trends, challenges and lessons learned. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 17, 34 (2020).

About the author


Dr. Stephanie Prince Ware is a Research Scientist with the Centre for Surveillance and Applied Research at the Public Health Agency of Canada. She has a BSc in Human Kinetics and a PhD in Population Health both from the University of Ottawa and an MSc in Epidemiology from Queen’s University. Dr. Prince Ware’s research focuses on the measurement of physical activity and sedentary behaviour, determinants of these health behaviours with a focus on built environments, and health behaviour interventions (including the evaluation of natural experiments). When not at work she is busy playing and coaching hockey and ringette, skiing, leading a local beaver scout group, and spending time with her two sons.

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