5 ways Canadians are fighting obesity
While it’s true that obesity rates in Canada are scary, new initiatives are turning the tide. Here are five ways that Canadians are fighting obesity
The obesity epidemic in Canada
Every few months, it seems, there’s another grim report telling us that adults and kids are heavier, flabbier and less fit than ever. The January 2010 Canadian Health Measures survey is just one example. It revealed that, between 1981 and 2009, fitness levels decreased significantly across all age groups. Obesity now trumps smoking as the greatest public health threat of our time.
But in communities across Canada and at all government levels, movement and healthy eating are making a comeback. This is exactly what’s needed to get us back on a healthy track, slow and steady as it is, says Kim Raine, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Centre for Health Promotion Studies and an expert in community-based strategies to promote healthy weights. “It took years for us to get this fat, and it’s going to take time and effort for social change to reverse it.” Here’s a roundup of some of the most promising initiatives in Canada’s fight against fat.
1. Growing your own vegetables
Remember how Mom always bugged you to eat your greens? Well, that advice may be one of the best anti-obesity weapons we have. According to recent findings, the biggest lifestyle difference between overweight teenage girls and those of normal weight is their consumption of fruit and vegetables.
One way to make veggies desirable to kids? Grow them yourself-and that’s just what is happening at some Canadian schools. “There are kids who have never seen a vegetable grow. But if they grow it, they eat it,” says Denyce Warren of the Lower Trinity South Regional Development Association in New Pelican, Nfld., which spearheaded the project to add a large greenhouse to St. Francis School in nearby Harbour Grace. This has allowed more than 2,000 students, from kindergarten to Grade 12 from all the surrounding district schools, to grow produce. Kids learned how to plant seeds, monitor growth on a webcam, and tend and harvest tomatoes, peas, broccoli, lettuce, zucchini, green and red peppers, herbs and more.
Beyond the schoolyard, community vegetable gardens are blooming even in dense urban centres across Canada. In Vancouver, for example, the large back lawn at City Hall has been converted into 36 year-round community garden plots. You’ll also find vegetables growing in city parks, and on shared lawns, abandoned rail grades and condo tower rooftops.
Browse our healthy recipes for ideas on how to prepare your fresh-grown veggies.
2. Walking or biking to school
Two thirds of Canadian families live close enough to schools that the kids could walk every day, yet only half of them do. Contrast that to 1971, when 80 percent of Canadian students walked to school. But active walking programs are now underway in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. and the Yukon.
Quebec’s “On the Move to School” has spread from an original eight schools to 135 schools reaching some 50,000 students. Working with partners such as local police, issues are addressed so students can safely walk or cycle to school. Plans are to expand the program to all of Quebec by 2015.
“Walking school bus” programs-where parents volunteer to walk with their kids along a specified route, being joined by other children from drop spots or homes along the way-are now in place at many schools across the country. In 1995, Jacky Kennedy of Toronto, the founder of Ontario’s Active & Safe Routes to School and the director of Canada Walks-a national program that she helped inspire-used to pick up her son at school each day in her car. “I realized there must be a better way,” says Kennedy.
3. Designing active communities
Sheila Hryniuk will never forget standing on the outskirts of Yorkton, Sask., in 2006 and realizing there was no safe way to walk or bike to Tim Hortons, just a short distance away but on a highway. As a volunteer on the city’s In Motion committee, she and others were assessing the walkability and bikeability of their community of some 17,000. The verdict: a failing grade. To make matters worse, a survey found that just 36 percent of Yorkton residents were considered active. A groundswell response brought together citizens, businesses, the RCMP, city workers, the mayor and council. A task force devised an action plan that included promoting not only active transportation but economic improvement. The results were dramatic: The old city centre got a facelift, storefronts were freshly painted, planters and benches dot pleasant walking routes and painted footsteps along roads encourage residents to “Walk a Mile.” The downtown area is safer for pedestrians, and linked bike paths are being planned, mapped and created.
Abandoned rail grades all over Canada-from Victoria to Ottawa and beyond-are being converted to recreational trails. And some 15,500 kilometres of trail have now been developed as part of the sea-to-sea TransCanada Trail system. When it’s finished, it will offer millions of Canadians easy access to hiking, cycling, horseback riding and more.
4. Building better stairways
Taking the stairs is an obvious, cheap and convenient way to get fit and burn more calories. Too often, however, stairs in public buildings can be dark, dank, located in distant corners or accessible only by a pass card.
Patti-Jean Naylor, assistant professor in the school of exercise science, physical and health education at the University of Victoria, notes that evidence shows that people use the stairs much more often when stairways are more accessible and visually appealing. In 2003, she headed a pilot project, Stairway to Health, at ?a building in Ottawa and at the Ministry of Health building in Victoria. In the latter, stairwells were painted welcoming colours, music was piped in and the works of local artists were hung on walls in the landings. Posters by the elevators encouraged everyone to take the stairs. And they did, and still do. “I always take the stairs one or two floors,” says Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s provincial health officer, whose office is in the building.
5. Government policies
You know it’s an epidemic when governments start enacting legislation to control behaviour. Across the country, individual provinces and the federal government are bringing in policies and legislation that aim to address some of the societal factors driving our obesity problem. Quebec, in 1980, became the first place in the world to prohibit junk-food advertising to ?children. Now the province is weighing the benefits and consequences of having municipal bylaws changed to keep fast-food outlets from being built near schools. So far, three municipalities are being considered as test cases. Other Canadian provinces are banning junk food in school vending machines and introducing comprehensive school health programs to their curricula that address both physical activity and nutrition.
Societal health issues are being considered on a Canada-wide scale, too. To keep consumers aware of the amount of calories, fat, salt and sugar in each serving of various processed foods, there are now federal mandates for nutritional information on food packaging. And to encourage physical activity in children, the federal government has, since 2007, been offering parents a tax credit of up to $500 a year for each child under 16 enrolled in an organized-sports program.
The bottom line
While all these initiatives are promising for fighting the obesity epidemic, they may be too piecemeal to be effective. “We need a national obesity strategy to coordinate all our efforts and focus our resources,” says Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network. “Obesity is killing 25,000 Canadians a year. We need to do much, much more right now.”