CM: Beyond Gym Class: Physical Literacy’s Role in Lifelong Health

March 15, 2023

By Carrie Cyre, ESPC Volunteer


The United Nations defines literacy as an essential life skill that enables individuals to fully address the challenges of the 21st century (PHE Canada, 2023). Literacy enables greater participation in the labour market, supports sustainable development, improves health and nutrition, and reduces poverty (UNESCO, 2022). Physical literacy is a type of literacy associated with health and body knowledge, movement and activity. Many nations, including Canada, have started including physical literacy messaging to help reduce the burden of chronic health conditions and improve overall health. 

What Exactly Is Physical Literacy?  

Physical literacy is a nuanced and holistic concept. Whereas physical activity is “any bodily movement produced by the skeletal muscles that require energy” (PHE Canada, 2023), physical literacy is concerned with a complete version of physical attributes, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours (UN, 2023). Margaret Whitehead, an educator and scholar of physical literacy, provides the gold standard definition:  

“[Physical literacy is] the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.” (2001). 

Many models of physical literacy exist, however, physical literacy is typically comprised of three key parts: 

Affective – Individual attitude and motivation associated with physical activity. This aspect of physical literacy focuses on self-esteem and confidence. Examples include ensuring all participants are given equal play time in team sports, encouraging the development of new skills, and building a positive relationship with activity and movement (Curry, 2020). Several studies have shown that individuals with higher self-esteem are more inclined to engage fully in physical activities than those with lower self-esteem (Edwards et al., 2016). The win-lose dichotomy in many sports is de-emphasized in favour of personal bests, participation, and team building. 

Cognitive and Behavioral – Basic physical literacy knowledge and understanding of how to apply it during any activity. This includes learning the rules and traditions of individual and team sports, but also body awareness (Edwards et al., 2016). Cognitive includes the knowledge and application of knowledge about the role of exercise in a healthy life. Behavioural changes, such as life-long participation in sports and activities will ensure optimal health through aging (Curry, 2020). This core tenet includes ‘‘valu[ing] and tak[ing] responsibility for maintaining purposeful physical pursuits/ activities throughout the life course’’ (Edwards et al., 2016). 

Physical – The physical skills and competencies needed for a healthy life. In the physical domain are competencies such as movement capacities, motor skill competence, physical competence, fundamental movement skills and purposeful physical pursuits (Edwards et al., 2016). Physical competence is defined as one’s ability to move with capability in a wide variety of activities, both within a sport but also in daily life (Mandigo et al., 2009). These skills include movement capabilities such as balance, coordination, dexterity, and hand-eye coordination, catching, throwing, running and jumping (Bolger et al., 2018).  

Holistic and Life-long  

These three categories embody a well-rounded approach to physical activity that balances knowledge with physical movement and activity. Physical and Health Education Canada states that physically literate individuals can move confidently in various physical activities (2022). Finally, physical literacy is meant to be a life-long journey for people of all ages. You are never too young or too old to improve your physical literacy.  


Physical literacy is a relatively new concept in physical education, but it has shown promise in improving the health outcomes of Canadians. In addition, there is potential for physical literacy to change some people’s relationships with physical activity and open up inclusive spaces where all persons feel they can improve how they feel about physical activity in a way that works for their bodies.  

Physical literacy is associated with better physical and mental health outcomes. For example, several studies have linked physical literacy with reduced diabetes, and overweight and obesity in children (Nyström et al., 2018). Further research indicates that children with high physical literacy have better self-esteem, higher test scores and more stable moods (Jefferies et al., 2019). The skills associated with physical literacy also enable individuals to make beneficial and respectful choices for themselves, others, and their environment (PHE Canada, 2022). The benefits reaped from physical literacy, similar to other kinds of literacy, should be considered through the lens of personal and social responsibility (Mandigo et al., 2009). 

It sounds like a win-win for everyone!  


To Learn More:  

Physical Literacy Canada is an excellent resource for everyone, from individuals looking to improve their physical literacy to educators, coaches and teachers interested in promoting physical literacy in students and athletes. 

If you are interested in Alberta-specific resources, see the Active For Life website: or the Active For Life Instagram page: 

If you are an educator, academic or interested in physical literacy research, see the position paper for educators here: 


Note: This is an excerpt from our March 2023 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here

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Carrie-Anne Cyre, MPH, is passionate about eliminating food security and poverty in our local communities. Her background in research coordination, humanities, mathematics and knowledge of scientific processes makes her a strong addition to any research team. When she’s not helping teams knock out award-winning research, Carrie-Anne loves to volunteer, travel, read books and enjoy the outdoors. Carrie-Anne is a lifelong learner, terrible surfer, and lover of all animals and nature. Carrie is a volunteer with Edmonton Social Planning Council.  



Bolger, L. E., Bolger, L. A., O’ Neill, C., Coughlan, E., O’Brien, W., Lacey, S., & Burns, C. (2018). Age and Sex Differences in Fundamental Movement Skills Among a Cohort of Irish School Children, Journal of Motor Learning and Development, 6(1), 81-100. 

Curry, E. (2020). Physical Literacy: Why Is It Important And How Can You Develop it? 

Edwards, L.C., Bryant, A.S.,  Keegan, R.J., Morgan, K. & Jones, A.M. (2016). Definitions, Foundations and Associations of Physical Literacy: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 17,113–126. 

Jefferies, P., Ungar, M., Aubertin, P., & Kriellaars, D. (2019). Physical Literacy and Resilience in Children and Youth. Frontiers in Public Health, 7, 346. 

Nyström, C., Traversy, G., Barnes, J. D., Chaput, J. P., Longmuir, P. E., & Tremblay, M. S. (2018). Associations between domains of physical literacy by weight status in 8- to 12-year-old Canadian children. BMC public health, 18 (2), 1043. 

PHE Canada (2022). Physical Literacy. 

Mandigo, J.,Francis, Lodewyk, K., & Lopez, R. (2009). Position Paper Physical Literacy for Educators. 

UNESCO (2022). Literacy Statement. 

Whitehead, M. (2001). The Concept of Physical Literacy, European Journal of Physical Education, 6(2), 127–138, 


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