• Ted Fraser

Canadians Skipping More Than Just Leg Day: An Inventive Yet Slightly Far-Fetched Proposal to Improve

At the moment, about 60% of Canadians are overweight or obese. What measures can be taken to prevent this obesity epidemic from completely consuming us, economically and socially? Proposals for fixing this problem range from a “fat tax” to the subsidization of fruits and vegetables (making them more affordable) to posting calorie information about food at fast food restaurants. All of these ideas have their pros and their cons.

One idea that I don’t think has been proposed yet is the subsidization of gym memberships for overweight or obese individuals. It might not be a perfect solution, and it definitely has its disadvantages, however it is an interesting and cost-effective proposal to consider.

The financial burden of catering to a population made up of overweight and obese citizens is massive; according to one study, the costs come in between $4.6 billion and $7 billion a year. The costs are split between direct health-care costs and indirect costs like lost productivity.

So, the financial incentive to fix the problem is definitely there. Indeed, as the same report notes, socio-economic status is a good predictor of well-being: In Halifax, 11% of people in the highest 20% of income earners are obese, compared with 26% of those in the lowest-income group. However, that trend is inconsistent, as displayed in this StatsCan graph.

As we can see, there is no clear, overarching pattern relating income to obesity prevalence, despite a minimal decrease in females from Decile 5 to Decile 10.

Having federal and provincial governments partly or fully subsidize gym memberships would positively affect numerous businesses and industries, not just the individuals that are dropping a few pounds. For example, the health industry would stand to benefit massively. New apparel would inevitably be bought (shoes, shirts, shorts), as well as fitness related technology (think Fitbit, iPods, online music memberships, etc.)

Additionally, gyms would have to expand and hire more employees, creating jobs for thousands. Furthermore, various studies have shown that regular exercise not only causes an individual to lose weight, but to sleep better, enhance their mood, boost energy, and be less at risk for mental illness.

However, it could have some adverse effects. Would these memberships increase gym-related injuries like muscle tears, ankle injuries, and back problems? Additionally, with more people travelling, probably by car or transit, to the gym, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions would most likely rise. Moreover, would Canadians go to the gym enough for it to make a difference? There would be quite a few logistical problems as well, like making sure people with subsidized memberships were going enough, and tracking their progress to ensure the investment was worthwhile. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, for some people it is not a financial barrier that prevents them from working out and staying healthy, but a mental barrier.

The costs of an initiative like this would be worthwhile when looking at in the context of the results it could potentially yield. Roughly 62% of Canadians are overweight or obese. In a perfect world where kale smoothies replace Coke, and running marathons replace Netflix marathons, that number would be at 0%. A more realistic number would anywhere from 30-50%. Choosing a third of the overweight or obese population – roughly four million Canadians – would be a good start. The selection process could be a lottery style, or could focus on specific spectrums of the obesity scale – those who were inflicting the most damage and costing the most money to the federal health care system, for instance. Moreover, provincial and federal governments should subsidize the memberships of impoverished Canadians first – the less money a citizen has, the more the government should pay.

GoodLife Fitness is the only country-wide fitness organization, and might be a good partner for this theoretical project. A membership is roughly $600 a year. No doubt Goodlife would lower the price significantly if it stood to gain four million new members. Let’s say the Government of Canada negotiates the price down to $250 a year. If they paid for, on average 80% of the membership (leaving a cool $50 to each new member), that would amount to $800 million annually. No doubt this costs a ton of money. We must keep in mind, however, that the financial costs of the obesity epidemic are anywhere from five to nine times this figure.

Unfortunately, this idea will most likely never be implemented or even considered. The benefits, of which there are many – a healthier population decreases healthcare costs, it would decrease the prevalence of mental illness, increase productivity, improve sleep quality, create jobs and increase sales across numerous industries – are not enough to outweigh the unrealistic financial burden of a project like this –anywhere from $800 million.