Nutrition and physical activity

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45% of parents surveyed said that their child’s physical fitness had deteriorated since the start of the pandemic.

Published May 11, 2020

This article is part of our “Determinants and the pandemic” series, which examines certain determinants of school perseverance in light of the current crisis and its attendant measures.

Determinant | Impacts of the health crisis | ConcernsResources | References


A healthy lifestyle (including good nutrition and physical activity) is a protective factor that acts positively to reduce the risks of dropping out of school.

The proportion of youth at a high risk for dropping out of school is systematically higher among those with health vulnerabilities than those in good health.[1]

“A healthy diet, regular exercise, and good sleep habits are factors that contribute to an optimal and continuous acquisition and use of cognitive and behavioural abilities. Such lifestyle habits affect memory, the ability to learn, and educational success.”[2]

Various studies have shown that not all youth maintain healthy lifestyle habits.


  • In Montréal, 22% of grade 6 students eat junk food at least three times a week.[3] In highly underprivileged areas, this rises to 30%.
  • 32% of Québec schools offer regular nutritional support measures.[4] Montreal’s 78 breakfast clubs feed over 12,000 students per day.[5]

Physical activity:

  • In Montreal, 65% of grade 6 students do not get the recommended amount of exercise (one hour per day).[6]
  • The dropout risk is twice as high among sedentary students than among active students. In high school, 22% of sedentary students have a high risk of dropping out, compared to 12% of active students.[7]

Students in the most underprivileged neighbourhoods are also more numerous to adopt behaviours that put their health at risk, such as regularly consuming sugary drinks and junk food and being overly sedentary.[8]

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Some studies suggest that during non-school periods (weekends and holidays), certain healthy lifestyle habits may be abandoned in favour of less balanced behaviours (more screen time, junk food, less exercise, etc.), resulting in weight gain and a lower cardiorespiratory fitness.[10]

One might expect that such negative effects on health would be even more marked when children are confined to the home and not allowed to play outside or interact with friends of the same age.[11] 


  • A Crop survey conducted from April 17 to 20, 2020 for the Jasmin Roy Sophie Desmarais Foundation found that 45% of parents surveyed said that their child’s physical fitness had deteriorated since the start of the pandemic but confirmed that 93% of children had maintained physical activities.[10]
  • A Léger survey indicated that 49% of adult Montrealers had reduced the amount of exercise they get since the start of the confinement.[11] In the same survey, 25% of those surveyed reported a reduction in the overall quality of their diet.
  • Centraide reports that 50% of the calls to the 211 telephone support line concern diet, with the number of people in need rising as confinement measures are extended and job losses mount.[12]

While these data points do not paint a comprehensive picture of the situation regarding diet and exercise, they do raise concerns about the effects of the crisis on this determinant.


Given that the Montreal data already paint a worrisome portrait of young people’s health habits, it is relevant to investigate the impacts of the confinement and the problems it creates, in particular:

  • Changes in routines
  • Food insecurity and the challenge of eating a balanced diet
  • Obstacles to physical and sporting activities
  • Reduced services
  • Increased socioeconomic disparity



  • The closure of schools and childcare centres has led to a suspension of food support programs that provide breakfast or snacks to thousands of children.
  • There has also been a reduction in food services and activities, brought about by health measures. Many organizations have quickly adapted their measures to maintain food security, but access nevertheless remains a challenge for many families.[13]
  • In addition to serving those who were already vulnerable, organizations must now try to reach and serve new families who are suffering from the effects of the crisis (from lost income, for example), in a context of a weakened food distribution chain.

Physical activity

  • The health crisis has led to a suspension of sports activities and closure of sports facilities.
  • This is compounded by Montréal-specific challenges and high population density. For example, where dwellings lack yards, sports activities often take place in public spaces. During a period of social distancing, these activities are much more complicated and, in general, mostly impossible, due to factors that are inherent to sports (intensity, proximity, gatherings, physical contact).

What repercussions will this have on young people’s motivation, concentration, overall well-being, and, ultimately, on their educational success? How can we reduce the impact of the situation and promote a healthy lifestyle? These are questions that we must continue to reflect on.


We thank Maude Poulin Lemieux, regional development advisor for leisure and physical activity, Sport et Loisir de l’île de Montréal, for helping to review the article on the determinant “Nutrition and physical activity.”

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[1] Topo, 2017, p.5

[2] Topo, 2017, p.14 [translated excerpt]

[3] Topo, p. 23.

[4] INSPQ, Les mesures de repas scolaires subventionnés et leurs impacts sur l’alimentation et le poids corporel des jeunes, 2014,

[5] Club des petits déjeuners, Breakfast Club of Canada in Numbers, 2019,, p. 28

[6] Topo, p. 23.

[7] DRSP, 2019, Regard sur la santé des jeunes Montréalais à risque élevé de décrochage scolaire, p. 18.

[8] Direction régionale de santé publique (2018) Portrait des jeunes montréalais de 6ième année : résultats de l’enquête TOPO 2017.



[11] ASPQ, 2019,