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People dance during an outdoor exercise class on a foggy fall morning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Oct. 23, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Josh Fullan is the director of Maximum City, a public engagement and education firm based in Toronto

This winter, catching the coronavirus isn’t the only serious public-health risk we are facing. One of the biggest threats to our collective health in the colder, darker months may be that the lack of physical activity imposed by the pandemic takes hold as a habit. We like to joke about packing on “quarantine 15” or “COVID-19 pounds,” but it is an issue that requires serious discussion.

The message we all need to hear isn’t new or particularly original. The stakes are just higher than they’ve ever been. Instead of hunkering down and hoping for a return to normal in the spring, we need to mobilize now and take the one clear path forward to better health by prioritizing physical activity.

If nostalgia is your thing, think back to the ParticipACTION ads from the 1980s. Some older Canadians can still sing their jingles by heart: “Don’t just think about it, do it, do it, do it.”

Since March, to varying degrees across the country, restrictions and walls of inactivity have boxed us in. Many of the daily routines and institutions that we relied on for incidental and intentional movement have been reduced or eliminated – commuting, walking to a meeting in the middle of the day, running between buildings on campus, grabbing a coffee, gyms, organized sports.

Some Canadians have found ways to thrive during the restrictions and a quiet summer. The overall trend, however, is toward more narrow, sedentary lifestyles. And winter can impose its own restricting will.

The coronavirus has countless ways to keep us at home or inside, particularly as exhaustion and apathy set in. It makes us sick and anxious. It postpones weddings and vacations. It closes parks and playgrounds. It turns the in-person virtual. It robs us of the many unplanned interactions and moments that over the course of a week or a month add up to important chunks of social and physical activity.

In the ordinary course of things, we take this accumulation of light activity for granted. But without it, people need to get intentional about scheduling movement into their day.

For starters, take the simple step of prioritizing exercise ahead of a work deadline or time spent looking at a screen. If your day includes a list of things to do, reshuffle their order to put something that includes physical activity at the top. Stand instead of sit. Put something in your weekly calendar that makes your heart pump. Make it non-negotiable. To maximize accountability, find a workout partner for outdoor or physically distanced activities. Rinse and repeat until these behaviours become your unbreakable habits in the winter of COVID-19. For kids, play is a great way to be physically active.

If lectures don’t stir you from the couch or home office chair, try some hard evidence. A national study from Ryerson University and others found that 64 per cent of children and youth were being less physically active outside in the spring. In a similar study I led, 57 per cent of Canadian kids and teens reported being less physically active overall. Screen time, not surprisingly, was up for nearly everyone.

Our study shows a strong correlation between not maintaining physical activity levels and declines in well-being tied to negative feelings. In other words, keeping up with exercise during pandemic times may be key to protecting your mood.

Governments and their partner organizations are responding to the threat that physical inactivity poses to our national health and well-being. Cities, where four out of five Canadians live, must continue to find ways in all seasons to give public space like streets back to the public for health-boosting physical and social activity. And they must do it equitably across communities.

ParticipACTION is back with its Great Big Move campaign. It also just released, along with Public Health Canada and others, 24-hour movement guidelines to help adults set goals for healthy behaviours. They include a target weekly accumulation of 2.5 hours of energetic physical activity and the important reminder that all movement is good for you. What’s missing from the guidelines is an urgent warning that the old complacency around physical activity will no longer do if we want to avoid a second, downstream public-health crisis.

While the guidelines aren’t perfect, and most Canadians were not meeting them prior to COVID-19, they do provide evidence-based benchmarks to inform our daily lives. The timing of their release may be more critical than their contents. With a winter supercharged for idleness and anxiety on the way, physical activity is life-and-death business.

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