How can we improve the lives of Canadians? Movement

Opinion: Worsening epidemics of cardiovascular disease and mental illness could be reversed by a collective effort to get Canadians moving.

The Province 3 minute read October 14, 2021

Chris Smith is a 25-year veteran of the fitness industry and CEO and president of Fitness World. Jason Payne / Vancouver Sun

The continuing COVID-19 pandemic is a top public health priority, however Canada can’t afford to focus on it to the exclusion of another urgent crisis: the epidemic of cardiovascular disease, and the physical inactivity underpinning it.

Cardiovascular diseases (or CVDs) are the leading cause of mortality both in Canada and worldwide, linked to over 17 million premature deaths globally in 2019. There’s reason to believe that number will rise in the coming years. Why? It’s simple: exercise prevents and mitigates CVD, and COVID lockdown measures intended to reduce viral spread have had the unintended consequence of decreasing the net amount of physical activity people are getting while increasing sedentary behaviours.

As a passionate fitness advocate with 20-plus years in the industry, I have witnessed firsthand the health impacts of this pandemic that stretch far beyond the virus itself.

According to a report released by Statistics Canada this June, societal restrictions “May increase the long-term risk of (CVD)” as more time at home has resulted in people “spending less time doing common types of physical activity such as walking or biking to work, organized sports and recreational activities.”

In fact, a 2020 report published by the Canadian Journal of Cardiology states that social isolation, decreased physical activity, and increased depression and anxiety are all contributing factors to an anticipated CVD epidemic that could “dwarf the initial health effects of COVID-19.”

Depression and anxiety don’t only raise your risk of developing CVD — Canada’s national mental-health crisis is a devastating, multi-faceted epidemic in its own right. A 2020 survey from the Canadian Mental Health Association and the University of B.C. found the number of Canadians who reported having suicidal thoughts doubled since 2019, and that people who were already struggling with their mental health before the pandemic are now five times as likely to feel depressed.

Movement is no cut-and-dry cure for mental illness, but I’ve always championed its ability to boost our moods by increasing endorphins, reducing stress hormones and regulating our circadian rhythms.

To me, the writing is on the wall: Canada must find ways to encourage higher activity levels throughout our population, or our country will find itself grappling with more concurrent, major health crises than we can handle — or afford. In Canada, CVD is one of our most costly diseases, and the economic burden of mental illness is estimated at $51 billion per year. This isn’t just a matter of individual self-motivation; our institutions need to be doing more to help people feel incentivized and supported in efforts to sustainably increase fitness levels and improve our health.

We already have a good guideline for how to get Canada moving more — it’s called A Common Vision for Increasing Physical Activity and Reducing Sedentary Living in Canada: Released by government ministers. It recommends that employers provide workers standing desks, bike racks and health-spending accounts that can pay for gym memberships and that public education campaigns promote daily physical activity guidelines. This policy agenda should be applied systematically across all federal ministries and agencies, yet so far it’s only pertained to a handful of finite projects; some argue it’s being ignored.

Recently, the federal government declined a Fitness Industry Council of Canada proposal to make gym memberships tax-deductible medical expenses, despite the evident wisdom of investing in disease prevention through fitness.

In the absence of better institutional support, we must all continue encouraging activity within our communities. The health benefits of working out with friends are well-established, whether you’re hitting the gym or sticking to a schedule of walks.

I believe every little movement counts — even if you’re just doing one per cent more than the day before. We have to get moving to stay healthy and make a difference, for ourselves, and for each other.

Chris Smith is a 25-year veteran of the fitness industry, board member of the IHRSA (global health and fitness association), and CEO and president of Fitness World.