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Winner of $50,000 health prize calls for new strategy: 'You can be obese and fit'

Dr. Steven Blair, a renowned exercise scientist, prepares to receive the Bloomberg Manulife Prize at the MaRS Centre in Toronto on Jan. 11, 2012.

Jennifer Roberts For The Globe and Mail/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

If you want to live a long and healthy life, your best bet is to get off the couch, not cut the carbohydrates.

That's the message developed from years of research by Steven Blair, an exercise researcher at the University of South Carolina and the first winner of Canada's Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health.

Dr. Blair was awarded the $50,000 research prize at the MaRS Discovery District complex in Toronto on Wednesday night.

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The award is administered by McGill University and funded by financial executive Lawrence S. Bloomberg and Manulife Financial. It offers the cash to an academic whose previous five years of research helped change public attitudes about active living.

Hélène Perrault, McGill's dean of education, said the focus is on research that can improve and prolong peoples' lives. "And if we're looking for impact, I can't think of a better person [than Dr. Blair]" she said.

Dr. Blair, whose research focuses on the link between physical activity and life-long health, told an audience of about 200 people at MaRS that inactivity is the biggest public health problem of the 21st century. And he wants to see more of the public discourse about healthy living focus on exercise – rather than obesity.

"People have been hammering away the obesity epidemic for 20 years," he said. "Maybe we need a new strategy."

That doesn't mean a healthy diet isn't a good thing, he said, but it shouldn't take a priority over basic physical activity, adding, "You can be obese and fit."

Dr. Blair's research has found that 30 minutes of gentle activity each day – such as going for a walk – can reduce mortality rates by half.

But helping people make the change to a more active lifestyle remains a big challenge for public-health advocates. Dr. Blair said his latest research is focused on finding technological tools that will help prompt people to follow through on their fitness goals.

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He's used pedometers to help people set and achieve fitness goals, rewarding those who meet the goals and working on problem-solving for those who don't.

And he thinks social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook will be the next step in keeping people on track.

The annual Bloomberg Manulife Prize is the first of its kind in Canada and is open to academics across North America.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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