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Is Active Transport the Solution to Canada’s Fitness Dilemma?

Yesterday’s news was all about the new report on the declining fitness and increasing fatness of Canadians.

Although the role of physical activity to combat excess weight remains disputable, there is absolutely no doubt that increased physical activity is the key to better physical fitness (at any weight!).

So how do we get Canadians moving?

Probably not by demanding that they exercise more – indeed, we could probably easily plot the increase in gyms, fitness clubs, joggers, and sales of home exercise equipment vs. the increase in obesity and get a straight line that leaps right off the top of our chart.

Somehow I very much doubt that throwing even more gyms, fitness clubs or exercise equipment at the problem is likely to make any difference whatsoever.

Not that these facilities or gadgets are not effective when used; it is just that they are only (and probably only ever will be) used by such a small fraction of the population (mostly younger, female and affluent) that their use will probably never have a noticeable impact on public health.

If we want Canadians as a population to be more active, we will have no choice but to address some of the key factors that have led to this dramatic reduction in physical activity: automation and built environments that promote car dependency.

As pointed out by James Woodcock and colleagues from the UK in a recent article in The Lancet:

“Creation of safe urban environments for mass active travel will require prioritisation of the needs of pedestrians and cyclists over those of motorists. Walking or cycling should become the most direct, convenient, and pleasant option for most urban trips.

An increase in the safety, convenience and comfort of walking and cycling, and a reduction in the attractiveness of private motor vehicle use (speed, convenience, and cost) are essential to achieve a modal shift.”

Based on their modeling of the impact of increasing active transportation in London, UK and New Delhi, India, together with the known benefits of increased physical activity, the authors conclude that:

“Increase in the distances walked and cycled would lead to large health benefits. Largest health gains would be from reductions in the prevalence of ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, depression, dementia, and diabetes.”

Are these changes likely to occur across Canada anytime soon? Probably not!

Can we perhaps get Canadians to be fitter by hoping that they’ll now all get on their treadmills at the end of their eight hour working days and hour-long commutes? Don’t hold your breath!

Do you drive a car, complain about poor roads, expensive parking, and simply hate those pesky pedestrians and cyclists?

Then YOU are the cause of Canada’s fitness dilemma.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Well said- especially with you last point. WE are all to blame.
    I was fortunate to attend a Walk21 conference this last year. Its amazing to hear what other cities around the globe are doing to make the streets walkable. Small changes with road structure, street lights, aesthetics and traffic calming can make pedestrians a priority. Canadian cities and towns seem to struggle- we have so much space, just aren’t sure how to use it correctly.

    I could easily go on and on about this issue- its one close to my heart. I am very pleased to see it in your blog. Now if only those in municipal planning and transportation happen to be reading it- hmmmmmm

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  2. I for one do not think active transport is the solution, although it may be a step for some people. For one thing we know that those in rural areas are the most inactive and generally speaking more overweight than their urban counterparts. Unfortunately active transportation is not an option when you live 30 km from the nearest small town.

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  3. After 55, the concern shifts to preventing injury. If there’s ice on the sidewalks, I don’t need to walk anywhere and risk a slip and fall injury. Definitely I’m not going to be riding a bicycle along a street or highway under any road conditions. What my age group really needs is ways to get more fit without doing harm to ourselves. I have my own joints which is more than a lot of former phys ed teachers and aerobics instructions can say.

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  4. @ruth:
    In Europe one sees many cyclists over the age of 50. Cycling is not the dangerous activity that North Americans have been led to believe (and that our road system has encouraged). I’ve been a transport/utility cyclist for 20 years and hope to do it as long as I can still turn the pedals. If I ever have balance issues, I’ll buy one of those cool tricycles (they carry more cargo, too)!
    Absolutely our priority has to shift to pedestrians and cyclists, and this does NOT need to come at a high cost for extra facilities. For example, reducing speed limits in residential areas will increase safety and decrease the convenience factor of using a car. In Edmonton, roads parallel to main arteries could be made bicycle-only. But the number one thing we need to get society to do is to recognize and support people who ALREADY bike and walk.

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