“How are we selling exercise?”

Andre Picard, a writer for The Globe and Mail and the keynote speaker for the University of Toronto’s “Physical Activity: The Best Medicine?” symposium, took the stage at Isabel Bader Theatre last December.


Picard was quick to concede that he does not have a scientific or health-related background. He does, however, have a background in communications. He has also written two books: Critical Care: Canadian Nurses Speak for Change and The Gift of Death: Confronting Canada’s Tainted Blood Tragedy.


He threw a statistic at his audience: in 2011, pharmacies sold Canadians $32 billion in pills. Then he asked, “How are we selling exercise?” After all, obesity costs the Canadian government between $4.6 and $7.1 billion every year. This includes both direct healthcare and indirect costs, such as loss of productivity.


In 1973, a ParticipAction ad that ran on Canadian television announced that the average 60-year-old Swede is healthier than the average 30-year-old Canadian. The ad only ran six times, but it had a lasting impact on many Canadians.


The vast majority of people get information about health from TV and newspapers, but more and more people now look to social networks like Twitter and Facebook for information.


Picard said that the stories we see on talk shows or reality shows emphasize the need for willpower, intervention, and commercially available products like Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers.


Shows like The Biggest Loser portray exercise as a necessary evil. Paradoxically, health shows on TV make us avoid losing weight because it looks unattainable. It doesn’t look fun. This mindset is encouraged from a young age.


Picard joked about how the people who come to events like the symposium are usually already physically active and come to hear about how great it is.


So what can we do to change this idea of exercise? “Stop saying the word ‘exercise’,” Picard advised. He suggested that we use the words “move” or “be active” instead, because they don’t have negative connotations.


He also put greater emphasis on urban planning. Most cities are built with car-friendly designs and limited sidewalks; there are relativey few special bike lanes. And regular roads don’t have tolls, so there’s no incentive to walk anywhere.


Meanwhile, it costs money to swim at most local community centres.


Ironically enough, tax credits go to the healthy and wealthy. There’s a growing divide between the rich and the poor. The same thing happens with exercise. Those who can “afford” it are healthy and wealthy. People with lower-income jobs used to do manual labour, but service jobs and sitting are the norm now. Exercising should be an escape from these jobs, not a chore.


Picard noted that everyone says that time is the problem; no one has enough time. Picard dismissed it as an excuse. He said that the problem is leadership. There are no models of physical activity, especially in politics. In his opinion, Pierre Trudeau was the last active prime minister. It was Trudeau’s idea to run the ParticipAction ad back in the 70s.

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