THE ISSUE: Physical Activity

The Issue is a series of articles on Healthy Community issues and topics, written by BC Healthy Communities Staff.

What is the issue?

Physical Activity.

 

Why is it important?

An active community is a community with built and social environment features making it easy for  people to regularly use physical activity. These features include things such as infrastructure for sport, recreation and active transportation, such as gyms, hockey rinks, trails and bike lanes, as well as policies and programs for all ages and abilities, from yoga and swimming at the local recreation centre to kayaking at outdoor summer camps. 

Active communities are central to healthy communities, but too often physical activity is one of the first things to go by the municipal priority wayside (along with arts and culture programming). But from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, international and regional public health authorities have urged people to stay physically active to stay healthy, mentally and physically. It’s been a central mantra to the response to COVID: keep 6 feet away from others, wash your hands, stay in touch with loved ones and stay physically active. 

Active communities touch so many parts of planning and public health. Policies and programs meant to increase physical activity are good for population health, given that physical activity reduces all-cause mortality, increases immunity and decreases the burden on the healthcare system. Active communities have less pollution and make use of healthy green spaces. Physical activity improves social and community connectedness, which in turn can increase positive mental health. The best part? Everybody can be active.

 

What does this look like through an equity lens?

When we examine issues through an equity lens, we consider: who benefits? who does not benefit, or is in fact harmed? A record amount of jobs being lost across the country will result in even more families struggling for a fair chance to live a healthy life. For these families, expensive equipment and fees might have already made organized physical activity—including watching professional sports—out of reach. With a loss of income, people may find it harder and harder to justify spending time, money and energy to access physical activity.

There have been other moments in B.C.’s history when physical activity has been used as a way to create healthy communities in tough times. During the Great Depression, recreational physical activity became important to people across B.C. by giving folks a welcome break from backbreaking wage-labour jobs or the low morale stemming from unemployment. It also provided employment opportunities, particularly to women, who outnumbered men in the B.C. recreation landscape of the 1930’s. 

Physical activity is cross-cultural and transcends barriers. It impacts social, communal, physical, moral and mental health, but the way we increase physical activity at an upstream level is not one-size-fits-all. Different approaches to increasing physical activity take on different considerations for equity. If we think of all of the benefits of physically active communities as the spokes of a wheel, we can put all sorts of things as the centre hub – but these decisions will impact different folks in different ways. For example, using a  settings approach that places schools at the centre of an active community project may impact students based on whether they reside in a catchment area of a participating school, not to mention the fact that the pandemic will change the way that gym classes are conducted. Focusing on community-building activities such as organized sport might only reach people who can afford pay-to-play fees, but also presents an opportunity for more people to take part if those fees are waived. Physical changes to the built environment such as active transportation policy and infrastructure commitments may be within reach for urban areas, but may be out of reach for rural communities where physical distance presents a barrier.

 

What does this mean for local governments?

Local Governments are going to have to make some difficult decisions with tightened budgets coming up. Already, government employees at all levels are seeing the impacts of layoffs at a scale few, if any, remember. Though emergency measures to give relief to homeowners, property owners, business and taxpayers through deferred payments have been a blessing downstream, upstream work is sliding off the edge of everyone’s desk as we pivot to urgent needs like setting up Emergency Health Offices (EHOs). 

Policies and programs which allow for people of all ages to regularly use physical activity for individual and community health are classic examples of upstream thinking. Thinking and acting upstream requires working to prevent poor health outcomes rather than responding to them once they have already developed. Upstream interventions and strategies focus on improving fundamental social and economic structures in order to decrease barriers and improve supports that allow people to achieve their full health potential. Local governments have an awesome opportunity to use physical activity as a way to bridge the gap between municipal policies and the health system. 

Like we said above: though there have been a large number of shocks to the system, investing in active communities work will make people’s lives easier and better. There is nothing but research and evidence to back this up!

 

Where can I go to learn more?

To hear more about how your community can support health by ensuring equitable access to physical activity for all community members, get in touch with BC Healthy Communities, sign up for our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

More about physical activity:

More about the B.C. sports and recreation landscape:

Other Resources:

 

Claire Sauvage Mar is BC Healthy Communities’ Grants & Engagement Coordinator.

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