Canadians know an active lifestyle helps them stay healthy, but that doesn't mean they choose to live one. A major new research prize is intended to help change that, targeting the elusive barriers between awareness and action.
On Tuesday, McGill University will launch the Bloomberg-Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health, a $50,000 annual award for an academic whose previous five years of research made substantial strides toward changing attitudes about active living.
The prize will be the first of its kind in Canada, and it took the will and means of a financial executive with a fondness for the gym, Lawrence S. Bloomberg, to get it off the ground.
Evidence has piled up that Canadians' physical-activity levels are dropping, while indicators of chronic disease are getting worse. The population as a whole is also aging, threatening to push already ballooning health-care costs even higher. But Canada still struggles to halt this slide because changing behaviour is notoriously hard.
"Why? Maybe we haven't been giving enough attention to the physical, psychological and emotional barriers to changing our lifestyle," said Hélène Perrault, dean of McGill's Faculty of Education, which will host the prize. "You have these pamphlets, people read [them]and think, 'Yeah!' But what are the barriers?"
The prize's broad focus on all areas of physical activity, health and lifestyle is unique in Canada, and maybe in all of North America, said McGill assistant professor Catherine Sabiston, who mainly studies physical-activity motivation. And it is timely given that alarming numbers of Canadians now ignore even Canada's most basic guidelines for staying active.
"Less than 15 per cent of adults and 10 per cent of children are currently meeting Canada's physical-activity guidelines - which have been reduced to help people achieve them," Dr. Sabiston said.
Mr. Bloomberg is a McGill alumnus and the former co-chairman and co-CEO of National Bank Financial. He donated $1-million toward the prize, matched by another $1-million from Manulife Financial. But at age 68, he can also say he has led by example: In 1979, he ran his first marathon, and named the independent brokerage firm he helped found that year First Marathon Inc.
"We were a few guys who became partners. I think three out of the four had run, or were about to run, a marathon," Mr. Bloomberg said.
Mr. Bloomberg soon became involved at Toronto's Mt. Sinai Hospital, and later with other health-care institutions such as MaRS Discovery District and the University of Toronto's Faculty of Nursing. All the while, he has kept a steady routine of workouts with his wife, Fran.
"It makes me feel good," he said. "I do it at a pace that I think anyone can do."
Researchers increasingly think unlocking the sort of motivation that keeps the Bloombergs active is a key to preventing illness, as well as helping those who are already battling diseases and disorders to cope and to heal. While many people face real hurdles to getting active, from disabilities to a lack of finances, Dr. Sabiston worries that most people simply talk themselves out of it.
"The biggest barrier that we hear, no matter what age or what socioeconomic status, would be time. That is by far the most annoying, because the reality is that time is not a true barrier," Dr. Sabiston said. "And I'm still amazed at how many people think physical activity and diet are only important for people who are overweight."
The prize is open to North American academics, and the winner, to be named in late fall by a five-member jury, will deliver a lecture and a roundtable discussion at McGill. But Mr. Bloomberg hopes the prize will soon be open globally, sending a healthy message around the world.
"It's a very tall goal," he said. "I just think it's hard to change behaviour, and sometimes people need the catalyst, a change agent."
Dollars and sense: Canada's research prizes
A selection of Canada's most prestigious scientific research awards:
Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering
A tribute to the late Canadian scientist Bertram Brockhouse, it rewards teams of researchers from different disciplines who together did work of international significance with a $250,000 team research grant through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships
Six research grants of $250,000 over two years go to enhancing the career development of highly promising academics earning an international reputation for original research. Winners work on their research only, so their universities also receive $90,000 per year toward filling their shoes.
Thought by many to be Canada's most prestigious awards in biomedical sciences, the recipients are judged to have made a "tangible achievement" in the field, and each receive $100,000.
Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering
Named for the 1971 Nobel Prize-winner in chemistry, it is NSERC's highest honour and is worth $1-million in research funding over five years to an individual whose body of work "has demonstrated sustained excellence."
Each year, the Canada Council for the Arts awards five $100,000 prizes for career achievements, three of which are directed to researchers in the heath sciences, natural sciences and engineering.