Viewpoint—ParticipACTION fit to return for the video game generation

By Josh Finn

Remember those ParticipACTION ads with people dancing on roller-skates and doing sit-ups on the beach? The ones with that annoying-yet-catchy theme song urging you not to just think about getting active, but to actually “Do it! Do it! Do it!”?

Or how about Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod on Body Break showing how you can exercise everywhere from your office to an airplane, and their famous catchphrase, “keep fit and have fun”?

Well, get ready for more peppy catchphrases because ParticipACTION is back.

Last month, the federal government announced $5 million to revive the health promotion organization, which was left gasping for air due to government cuts, and folded in 2001.

With obesity at catastrophic levels in Canada, ParticipACTION’s call to action is exactly what Canadians need. The program, which should never have been cut in the first place, is needed now more than ever.

According to a 2004 Statistics Canada report, more than a quarter of Canadian children aged two to 17 are overweight, including eight per cent classified as obese. In Canada’s Aboriginal community, 41 per cent of children are overweight.

These figures lead to a heavy problem for Canada’s health-care system.

The Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology recently estimated obesity costs Canada’s health-care system more than $4.3 billion each year, including $1.6 billion in direct costs.

With these bloated figures, the $5 million being spent to revive ParticipACTION is a small price to pay. It makes more sense to prevent health-care catastrophes before they occur.

Together with the new fitness tax credit which allows parents to claim up to $500 per child for fitness activities on their taxes, the government recognizes obesity is a problem as is starting to do something about it.

But while $5 million is a great start, ParticipACTION will need much more financial support if the government is truly serious about shedding more than just a few pounds off the obesity problem. Solving this crisis will require a significant cash commitment.

While critics argue ParticipACTION was inefficient precisely because the number of obese children rose throughout the program, it’s possible obesity would be an even greater problem without it. The funding cuts throughout the 1990s also did not help.

In fact, ParticipACTION has a very successful record.One of its first ads was a 15-second spot that claimed a 30-year-old Canadian is as fit as a 60-year-old Swede. The ad aired just six times but was enough to ignite a national debate on the state of Canadian fitness.

ParticipACTION found ways to make exercise fun, presenting physical fitness in an original – although often cheesy – way.

A 2005 Ipsos-Reid Survey showed 80 per cent of Canadians had a positive reaction to the program.

Along with its various ad campaigns, ParticipACTION also built activity trails in Canadian parks, created exercise programs for schools and provided Canadians with comprehensive information on keeping fit.

The CrownLife ParticipACTION Challenge, which ran annually from 1983 to 1993, pitted pairs of Canadian cities against each another to compete for the title “Fit City.” On challenge day, millions of Canadians answered ParticipACTION’s call by completing 15 minutes of continuous physical activity, including aerobic workouts held in downtown parks and squares. In 1991, the Ottawa Citizen reported 45 per cent of Ottawa residents recorded their activity by calling the ParticipACTION hotline, as Ottawa easily defeated Vancouver, the city’s head-to-head challenger.

Of course, convincing a generation of Canadian youth hooked on computers screens and video game consoles will require fresh and innovative methods. But with its past marketing success, ParticipACTION should have the ability to “Do It!”

So hopefully next time you see a ParticipACTION ad on TV, it will convince you to put down the remote, keep fit and have fun.

Hal and Joanne would be proud.