June 6, 2012
Honourable senators, I am pleased to speak on the motion to establish a national health and fitness day. This motion was introduced in this place by the Honourable Senator Raine. She has shown exceptional leadership in moving it forward. Working in collaboration with Mr. John Weston, Member of Parliament for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, Senator Raine has brought an issue to our attention that is both prevalent and pressing. It is no wonder that this motion has strong support from all sides.
The motion proposes that the federal government call upon local governments to collaborate on choosing one day annually on which sports facilities across Canada offer a reduced or complimentary rate. This initiative will encourage newcomers, including families in a lower income bracket, to explore recreational facilities in their communities. It will also initiate a recurring national conversation about the benefits of an active lifestyle. In this way, this motion has the potential to evolve into something much greater than itself.
Honourable senators, obesity rates in Canada continue to rise. One in four adults is now obese and more than half of our population is overweight. Obesity is expected to surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable morbidity and mortality. Experts have estimated the resulting disease burden in Canada is close to $4 billion a year.
The solution is not an easy one. A myriad of genetic, social, cultural and economic factors influence individual health. In fact, recent research suggests that understanding unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking or overeating, requires an investigation of both genetic and environmental factors. Senator Raine has recognized the complexity of this problem and has advocated for a multi-faceted solution.
We know the benefits of exercise are significant. Regular physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, some types of cancers, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, depression, stress and anxiety.
However, we also know that a proper diet is essential to a healthy lifestyle and can help prevent chronic disease. For example, lowering consumption of refined sugars and grains can help maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. We also know that for some, decreasing sodium can help control hypertension and lower the risk of heart disease.
In short, proper nutrition is fundamental to good health. Therefore, it is crucial that fitness initiatives such as this one be accompanied by an emphasis on diet and nutrition.
Diet may be one of the simplest and most effective tools to improve overall health. Yet, as we know, trying to break unhealthy eating habits can be very challenging. Therefore, it is important to encourage healthy behaviours at a young age. Honourable senators, childhood obesity has been rising sharply. In the 2007 to 2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey, more than 25 per cent of teenagers and children were overweight or obese. The repercussions of this trend are disturbing, both for the lives of Canadian children and for the future of an already burdened health care system.
How can we teach Canadian children about nutrition and diet and encourage them to make healthy choices? School-based nutritional programs are undoubtedly one of the most effectively tools we have to combat childhood obesity. Healthy breakfast programs have been linked to improvements in attendance and punctuality, better behaviour, increased concentration, and an understanding of how healthy eating habits contribute to energy levels and overall well-being.
There are many excellent examples of school-based nutrition programs in Canada. Club des petits déjeuners du Québec was launched in 1994 in Lionel-Groulx Primary School in Longueil by founder Daniel Germain. Since then, this initiative has been recognized by the United Nations World Food Programme, and is the model used by Breakfast Clubs of Canada to develop school food programs in the rest of the country. Last year, Breakfast Clubs of Canada served over 16 million breakfasts and over 106,000 children in school breakfast programs across the country.
In 1980, Quebec took a legislative step towards reducing childhood obesity when it passed the Quebec Consumer Protection Act. The act banned print and electronic advertisements for toys and fast food aimed at children under age 13. The legislation was the first of its kind, and other countries, including Norway, Greece, Sweden and the United Kingdom, followed.
A very recent study out of the University of British Columbia found that, between 1984 and 1992, the ban reduced fast-food consumption by US$88 million per year in Quebec and resulted in 2 billion to 4 billion fewer calories consumed by children. These results suggest that other initiatives, such as regulation of sodium and sugar levels or taxes on soft drinks, could have a significant impact.
While Quebec has been a pioneer in terms of provincial legislation, there is also progress at the local level. School boards in various jurisdictions have taken it upon themselves to establish official nutritional policies that benefit both students and communities.
The Eastern Townships School Board has the “Policy on Good Health for our Students,” which states that healthy nutrition supports learning and enhances physical, emotional, social and intellectual development. The policy also establishes specific objectives, such as the elimination of junk or empty-calorie foods in schools, the availability of a variety of wholesome foods at the lowest possible price and the increase in nutritional knowledge of students through education programs and projects.
The English Montreal School Board is another impressive example. It has a detailed nutrition policy that regulates all food distribution, paid or free, on school grounds. The policy includes a table of qualitative and quantitative food requirements, as well as a list of foods that may not be offered or sold to youth, such as doughnuts, deep fried potatoes and carbonated beverages. In fact, the use of a deep fryer is forbidden in any school under the board’s jurisdiction.
Currently, the English Montreal School Board includes 38 elementary schools and 18 high schools. These school boards have taken the opportunity to educate students about the benefits of a healthy diet and regular exercise, while leading by example in school cafeterias, and, by establishing nutrition as a cornerstone of school policy and administration, they have ensured the longevity and success of their initiative.
Honourable senators, as parliamentarians, we have the opportunity to demonstrate similar leadership. By establishing a national health and fitness day in Canada, we will encourage Canadians to invest in their health by exploring the benefits of exercise and nutrition. This motion may represent only one small step towards curbing obesity rates; however, it is a tangible plan that engages local governments and galvanizes the nation towards a common goal: a healthier population and a stronger country.