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Bring back the 60-year old Swede!

In 1973, an organization called Participaction was created to promote health and fitness through participation in physical activity--walking, running, and engaging in sports. The program was an early example of "social marketing"--using advertising and promotional techniques to advance fitness and health. The promotion was full of challenging good humor.

Participaction is best remembered for the 60 year old Swede, whom we were told was fitter than the average 30 year old Canadian; by way of illustration, a photo of a ski race featuring an elderly man in competition with a much younger one was widely circulated. This was pure fiction. No one had any real evidence for this assertion other than international fitness comparisons that put the Swedish population well ahead of Canada and everyone else. However, Canadians, ever modest and self-critical, took the idea to heart and discussed their needs for fitness at great length.

Participaction had a modest amount of public funding bolstered by additional backing and support from corporations and community groups. Its biggest success was in getting the communications media to provide blocks of time and space without charge. The response was seen in the many companies and community groups that organized active, special events for the benefit of employees and communities. Employers often boasted of the "fitness breaks" their employees enjoyed.

Then came the 1990's. Companies and governments were obsessed with the "bottom line," which really meant minimal investment for maximum gains in the short-term, regardless of future impact on company earnings of society at large. In the work place, fewer employees are now required to work harder, spend far more hours fixed in their chairs punching key boards and staring at computer monitors. Even the manufacturers of sports shoes and clothing are now more interested in fashion than in fitness.

Public and corporate contributions to Participaction fell off drastically. Radio, television, magazine and newspapers reduced the time and space allotted for unpaid advertising, seeking to maximize the pay-off for every 30 seconds of air time or inch of print space.

Participaction finally closed down in 2000. It needed $2.5 million to continue--a modest sum considering the value of its effort. No one is certain about the precise effect Participaction had on the habits of Canadians, other than the fact that they talked about fitness a great deal more. Perhaps it's only a coincidence that since the early 1990s, the average weight of Canadians has risen to the point of it becoming a public health concern. Perhaps, it's only a coincidence that diabetes, heart and circulatory problems are on the increase and that skeletal-muscular complaints (including carpal-tunnel syndrome) are up since the decline and demise of Participaction. Or is it just coincidence?

Participaction was a reaction to a thoughtful Green Paper issued by then Minister of National Health and Welfare, Marc Lalonde, in 1971. (The Canadian Journal of Public Health marked the two events, Lalonde's report and the initiation of participaction with interesting articles in its June 2004 issue.) As with our current health ministers, Lalonde was worried about the rising costs of health care. He pointed out that health and well-being requires more than hospitals, diagnostic machines, drugs, and the ministrations of health professionals. Controlling costs would depend largely on other areas--housing, working conditions, environment, recreation, diet, and general quality of life.

He urged more spending on health promotion and on preventive programs. When Participaction was launched, health promotion and preventive health programs received less than 2% of all health expenditures by both federal and provincial governments. That figure has not changed since then.

The current fashion is for politicians, editorialists and commentators to wring their hands over rising health care costs. The solutions proposed are usually more spending (and privatization). Yes, we certainly do need to spend more to rid us of waiting lists and other current problems but to stop there would result in the same unimaginative thinking that ended Participaction. Dollar for dollar, a modest increase in spending on health promotion and education would bring more positive long-term results than any other solution we can think of. While we're at it, we should bring back the chimerical 60-year old Swede, have some fun with him, and feel a whole lot healthier.

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Title Annotation:Comments
Publication:Community Action
Date:Jul 12, 2004
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