Every morning, Mrs. Caroline Johnson walks 30 times around the basement of her house on Avenue A in Saskatoon. This is not so remarkable until you consider that Mrs. Johnson is 88, and that when she started working out some months ago she could only manage five laps. She is one of the thousands of Saskatoon residents caught up in the city’s zany, noisy and effective Participaction program, and she is an elderly but eloquent testimonial to the wonders that can be worked if only, in the words of Participaction Chairman Dr. Sam Landa, “we can get people up off their butts.”
Participaction was born in Saskatoon, and huge signs greeted me as I entered the city, advising that this is “Canada’s Model Fitness Community.” The notion behind the campaign is to work us into a lather over the fact that we are a country full of slobs, to drill home the lesson that the average 60-year-old Swede is in better shape than the average 30-year-old Canadian, and to shame us into doing something about it. It is never put that way, of course: Participaction’s propaganda is brimful of the positive virtues of fitness (although there is a typical, puritanical playing down of the strongest selling point — fit people are sexier), but lurking behind all the slogans is the hidden hint that one day a boatload of Swedes will arrive over here, turn off the TV, dash the beer from our hands, and beat the hell out of us.
Of course, we are a nation of slobs, and it costs us. We spend more of our Gross National Product on health than any other Western country, we lose more time off work due to illness than most advanced nations, our economic loss due to cardiovascular diseases — directly related to lack of physical fitness — comes to an estimated $1.7 billion per year. We eat too much, drink too much and exercise too little. And, incidentally, how's your love life?
Sport Participation Canada, the mother corporation behind Participaction in Saskatoon, was founded in September, 1971, as a public-private hybrid. Founding funds were contributed by the federal government, free advertising is contributed by business firms and the work comes from volunteers such as Dr. Landa, a medical missionary preaching a muscular gospel.
Saskatoon was chosen as a test community by Sport Participation Canada because it is the right size, because it is semi-isolated and cold in winter, with a consequent temptation to slump into slobbery, because there are a lot of local enthusiasts (a city that puts up its own mountain to host the Canada Winter Games, as Saskatoon did in 1971, is a city full of zealots) and because Russ Kisby, National Coordinator of Participation Canada until this spring, came from there and knew the locals could bring the project off.
Kisby was right, although it didn’t look that way at first. A preliminary survey into the state of Saskatoon’s fitness provided horrifying results. Less than 5% of the group studied had done anything physically active in the previous two weeks; 64% had been inactive for a year; 42% had eschewed anything vigorous for 10 years; but most of those surveyed thought they were at least as fit as other Canadians.
So the local Participaction Committee (Participaction is the slogan, Sport Participation Canada the company) launched a propaganda campaign to convince Saskatoon’s citizens that they were less than fit. There were full-page newspaper ads, TV and radio plugs, and public meetings. Then, to remedy the situation, there was a community-wide program of action.
Behind their muscular jocularity, the Participaction people are reasonable folk; they don’t want us all out doing 50 push-ups or running the four-minute mile every day; they will be satisfied if we can mount a set of stairs without breathing like an obscene phone-caller. So, for its first project, Saskatoon asked its citizens simply to walk around the block once with their families. After a blitz of publicity, Saskatoon turned out and walked on the evening of February 5, 1973. The sponsors were expecting that, at best, one in five residents would take up the challenge; instead, with the thermometer at 20 below zero, some 70,000 people, about half the population, braved the night air for a few brisk minutes.
The city has never looked back. There have been walksaround-the-world (in which school children total the miles walked when everybody navigates a few blocks; the aim was to build up 25,000 miles for the city, but the first walk logged 61,000 miles), public and private competitions and a transAtlantic competition with Umeä, a medium-sized city in northern Sweden which was twinned with Saskatoon for the event. The burghers of Umeä were bemused when a Saskatoon delegation landed on them with a challenge to a walkathon — the winner to be decided by the city that turned out a greater percentage of its inhabitants for a three-day walkoff in May — but gamely went along. Umeä was beaten by Saskatoon, in a neck-and-neck race, by one percentage point on the third day of the competition.
The local effect of all this activity has been galvanic. Sales of skis, tennis rackets and other sports equipment have rocketed, once lonely evening classes at the Y are jammed, and the whole damn city is full of the smugness of the fit. New surveys have shown that the number of residents who are regularly active has jumped from less than 5% to more than 50%. I am far too polite to ask what has happened to Saskatoon’s love life, but the mind boggles.
Once established in Saskatoon, Participaction bloomed in other centres, and there are similar programs under way now in Peterborough, Ontario, Penticton, BC, and Medicine Hat, Alberta. There are province-wide committees forming in BC, Alberta and Quebec, with such tempting slogans as “Trim Quebec” and “Ban the Belly.”
I doubt if Participaction does much for the nation’s jocks beyond giving them a chance to show off. They are going to huff and puff and run anyway; the program works because it makes ordinary people do a few simple exercises, walk a little, jog a little, touch the toes a few times. Cellar-stomping may not be everybody’s idea of fun, but if that’s Mrs. Caroline Johnson’s way of joining in, I’m all in favor.
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