Viewpoint—Tax break for gym goers wrong approach to fighting obesity

By Erin Letson

A person who goes to the gym regularly shows a certain discipline and an admirable determination to lead a healthy lifestyle.

What they also reveal is their disposable income. With private gym memberships ranging anywhere from $50 to $250 per month (plus start-up fees), working out has become a pricey endeavour for those eager to stay in shape.

The Fitness Industry Council of Canada, however, wants to give gym goers a break – a tax break, that is. The Edmonton-based organization has started a campaign to send federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty a million postcards urging him to introduce tax-deductible gym memberships as an extension of the recent Children’s Fitness Tax Credit.

The campaign’s argument is that with a little financial incentive, adults will be more motivated to exercise, leading to a decrease in obesity and less strain on Canada’s health-care system. The tax break would cost around $160 million per year, according to the council.

But are incentives for people who can afford sweating it out at a gym really going to solve the country’s obesity problem? If passed, will this simply be another case of Stephen Harper’s government throwing money in the public’s direction and hoping complex problems will solve themselves (such as the child-care plan he unveiled earlier this year)?

The main glitch with the Fitness Industry Council’s proposed tax break is that it’s a private, not public, solution. While obesity is a problem that affects around one third of Canada’s adult population, a significant percentage of this number comes from low-income families. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, men and women from high-income households are about 40 per cent less likely to become obese than those in the lowest income category.

In the meantime, public recreation centres that are more accessible to lower-income individuals are in desperate need of funding to fix and develop lackluster facilities and improve programming. The Ontario government recently pressed its federal counterparts to invest $10 million to these centres over a 10-year period, but it’s still undecided whether they’ll see this money.

If federal funding does end up going to tax-deductible gym memberships, the future of public centres would become even more uncertain. Private gyms, on the other hand, would reap the monetary benefits of a tax break because it would give interested customers one more reason to sign on the dotted line that locks them into a membership.

But how committed would these new members be? Dropout rates at gyms are known for being high, so having a gym membership won’t necessarily mean adults will be exercising a whole lot more than they did before.

As CBC blogger Peter Hadzipetros put it, “you can’t buy motivation.” While it would be nice to reward people who diligently exercise at private gyms, they don’t require a financial incentive to stay fit.

What’s needed instead of a tax break, then, is a greater investment in public facilities and fitness and nutrition education that will reach Canadians in all income brackets – not just those that have the means to be gym goers.