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Andrew Pipe is a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa and a clinician-scientist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. He is a former ParticipACTION board member.

Our ability to be physically active was one of the many victims of the pandemic. It’s also one of the most important and least expensive tools that can help in our recovery.

We have known about the many benefits of physical activity for decades. And yet, physical inactivity is never treated as a fundamental national health priority, even though it’s considered one of the leading risk factors for chronic diseases and death worldwide, and costs our health care system over $6.8-billion a year. This is not sustainable. It’s time to prioritize and tackle Canada’s physical-inactivity crisis.

Over the course of the pandemic, the lifestyles of those able to work from home underwent drastic transformations. Active transportation and bustling workdays with breaks for walking to meetings or coffee runs were replaced with endless time spent at home. Many of us took comfort in the couch, while screens replaced social outings. COVID-19 furthered a global culture of convenience that has come to dominate our lifestyles – automation and omnipresent digital media have dramatically decreased everyday physical activity, and significantly increased sedentary behaviour.

The consequences were predictable, considering our already ongoing national decline in physical activity. Only 16 per cent of adults and 39 per cent of children and youth in Canada are meeting the recommended physical activity levels. Canadians may be aware of the many benefits that come from being active, thanks to the work of organizations such as ParticipACTION, which promotes physical fitness and healthy living, but we are still far from being an active country.

These are disturbing trends, because being physically active may be the single best thing we can do for our overall health. As a researcher with a focus on smoking cessation and cardiovascular disease, I have studied the benefits that exercise can have on both, and it has made me a lifelong advocate for physical activity as a fundamental determinant and modifier of our health.

Getting active is the closest thing we have to a “magic pill.” Even just a little bit of exercise per day can provide broad benefits to our physical and mental health, and in many settings can also enhance our sense of belonging and inclusion. That’s why regular physical activity is so much more than a nice-to-have hobby for those who can afford it – it is a necessity of life.

Physical activity can minimize symptoms of depression and anxiety, boost mood and build resiliency. This makes it an essential component in our mental-health tool kits – something many of us need right now, given that 40 per cent of Canadians say their mental health has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic. (The numbers are even higher for vulnerable groups.)

The evidence is overwhelming and consistent: Physical activity is fundamental to our health and well-being and should be considered an essential component of our pandemic recovery. We need to take collective action to ensure Canadians adopt and maintain physically active lifestyles and develop and enhance the social and physical environments that support both incidental and purposeful activity – thereby making healthy choices also easy ones.

A new comprehensive and well resourced physical-activity strategy is urgently needed. We need to rediscover the value of school-based physical education programs, the importance of enlightened urban-planning policies, the significance of active transportation plans, and to apply the lessons learned in other jurisdictions. Our new federal Minister of Health, Jean-Yves Duclos, could convene a physical-activity summit to kickstart the development of such a strategy. Slogans and catchphrases are not enough. Thoughtful policies and programs should underpin an approach to the acute public-health challenge posed by inactivity.

This is not the time to be still. COVID-19 was a wake-up call about the fragility and vulnerability of our personal health and health care systems. We understand how the benefits of a physically active society can intersect with broader goals – improving everything from our population’s physical and mental health, our shared sense of community, even addressing the environmental costs of outdated transportation policies.

Will Canadians and our leaders move toward a new, better “normal” – or will we continue to be idle in the face of an ongoing crisis that has revealed sobering lessons about the importance of public health?

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