If the health of Canada’s economy depends on the health of its population, it’s time to get moving, Canada.
On Nov. 30, the federal government presented its Fall Economic Statement, allocating an additional $100 billion over three years toward a stimulus spending plan designed to kickstart the economy. Although this includes some historic investments, the government’s plan is missing a key component for economic recovery – ensuring that Canadians have the resources to remain healthy throughout and following the pandemic.
Despite the government’s significant spending, it is failing to invest in Canadians’ physical activity, a health promotion and disease prevention measure that can improve the health of our population, healthcare system and the economy. Efforts to increase Canadians’ physical activity have been insufficient for years but the importance of supporting and maintaining active lifestyles is now more important than ever.
In Canada, we have physical activity guidelines for all ages, from infants and toddlers to older adults, as well as guidelines for those with chronic diseases. The guidelines for adults recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity per week. The minimum activity targets have been linked with countless improvements in health outcomes, including better mental health and cognitive functioning, reduced incidence of chronic disease and improvements to quality of life.
Despite the evidence, Canadians are far from getting enough physical activity to reap the benefits. A ParticipACTION report card for 2019 gave Canadian adults an F and children and youth a D+ in meeting the minimum targets. Only 16 per cent of adults aged 18-79 reached the targets and only 15 per cent of youth met guidelines for physical activity, sedentary time and sleep.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this situation even worse. A national survey conducted in April showed only three per cent of children and youth in Canada met the recommended physical activity and movement levels during the early days of restrictions.
A 2009 study estimated that the total direct and indirect costs of inactivity in Canadian adults was $6.8 billion.
In 2018, the federal, provincial and territorial (FPT) ministers responsible for sports, physical activity and recreation released Canada’s first national policy focused on physical activity, A Common Vision for Increasing Physical Activity and Reducing Sedentary Living in Canada: Let’s Get Moving. Its intention was to align, amplify and support the goals of existing policies.
Yet, it has largely been ignored. In June 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health (HESA) provided a list of recommendations based on the report. Its key recommendation was for the federal government to “ensure sufficient funding for, and endorse the development of, an implementation plan for the pan-Canadian framework on physical activity.” All recommendations were tabled and then omitted both from the October 2019 Liberal re-election platform and the government’s 2019 and 2020 throne speeches.
But this is an ideal time to support physical activity since the government is spending vast amounts to get the economy running.
Incentives such as the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit that was scrapped in 2016 could be brought back once pandemic restrictions ease to get young Canadians off their couches. The tax credit allowed families to claim up to $500 a year per child when it was introduced in 2007 and $1,000 per child by 2014. Though it was eliminated with the intent of simplifying the tax system and providing more support for low-income families, it and similar programs could be instituted temporarily to motivate Canadians during the pandemic.
The federal government should also look to support national organizations that provide programming aimed at increasing physical activity. The report’s recommendations include increasing the use of qualified exercise professionals in primary and long-term care; supporting workplaces in creating strategies to increase employee physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour; facilitating the promotion of cross-disciplinary programming between healthcare and community recreation; and supporting community capacity building for those living in rural and remote communities, for newcomers to Canada and for marginalized populations. Canadians would benefit from investments in these types of programs while concrete actions are established for a pan-Canadian framework.
Our federal and provincial governments should take advantage of this opportunity and rally Canadians to become more active; it is good for our overall health, our healthcare system, our communities and the economy. Let’s get moving, Canada – we can’t afford not to.
There are no conflicts of interest to declare.