The great Canadian shape-up

Hartley Steward January 24 1977

The great Canadian shape-up

Hartley Steward January 24 1977

The fitness craze swept Canada about five years ago much like any other fad. Canadians of every shape and age embraced it just as we had the Frisbee and the low carbohydrate diet. Somehow the word got out that as a nation we were overweight and unfit, ripe for every cardiovascular ailment endemic to mankind. Newspapers and magazines quoted surveys telling us how much television we watched and how little exercise we did. The cocktail party catch phrase became a little federal government hyperbole that went: “A 60-year-old Swede is more fit than a 30-year-old Canadian.” Canadians reacted with the biggest orgy of fitness since the Greeks invented the Olympics. Suddenly municipal tennis courts, idle for years, were jammed from dawn to dusk; the YMCA was sent reeling as a flood of fatties stormed their institutions; thousands of young executives began leaving for work an hour early with squash racquets, and middle-aged men and women by the hundreds could be seen panting their way along city street and country lane, jogging their way to fitness and health. You had to line up to buy a pair of sneakers.

The media called the phenomenon the Fitness Boom. But the description no longer applies. A month into 1977, there is every indication that fitness in Canada is not just a passing fancy, destined to go the way of the Hula-Hoop and transcendental meditation. The boom keeps getting louder as hundreds more Canadians get turned onto the joys of jogging. There are signs that fitness may be assuming a whole new role for Canadians, that it is becoming a routine part of our lives. It may be the birth of a new Canadian ethic.

Today YMCA facilities across the country (there are 74) reverberate to the sounds of pounding sneakers and exercise music as never before, straining present buildings to capacity. Since 1973 visits to Ys have increased by more than four million to about 6,620,000. Last year YMCAS raised a total $16.1 million for new and improved buildings. In 1972 that figure was less than a million. Some Ys, like the one in Saskatoon— Canada’s Fitness Capital—have had to freeze memberships. Others, as in Burlington, Ontario, have waiting lists for the first time in history. Even more significant than the numbers is the fact that new Y members are not interested in floor hockey and basketball. They want exercise and fitness classes. Don McGregor, a former YMCA physical fitness director, remembers that a decade ago the Toronto Central Y offered 10 fitness classes a week “and then you couldn’t get a dozen people out. They’d wait down in the locker room until the class was over and then come up for volleyball.” Today that same Y offers 26 fitness classes a week with as many as 120 in a class.

Perhaps the most obvious indication of Canada’s newfound fitness is the astonishing and continuing growth in racquet sports such as tennis, squash and racquet ball (a modified version of squash played with a softer, slower ball). Five years ago Canada couldn’t have offered 300 squash courts. Today there are more than 700 courts and probably 70,000 serious squash players. While British Columbia and Quebec have their enthusiasts—about 25% of the total—the real boom has taken place in Ontario where more than 60% of the country’s squash courts are located. Toronto alone offers 350 and will likely see another 70 or 80 built this year, as entrepreneurs cash in on the growth. In Canadian cities, the squash club has become the businessmen’s new meeting place, as warehouses and office buildings by the dozens are converted into expensive, stylish clubs. Typical is Toronto’s Bay Street Racquet Club, which opened a year ago with a capacity of 500 members. Already 400 memberships have been sold at $350 a shot and the club expects to be in the black in two years despite an investment of $370,000.

The shift from such competitive sports as hockey and basketball to fitness or racquet sports has practically revolutionized the sporting goods industry. In 1976 Canadians bought an estimated 800,000 tennis racquets and close to five million tennis balls. Three years ago sales were roughly half that. Adidas, the world’s largest sporting goods manufacturer, has tripled its sales of track shoes, track suits and racquet sport accessories in the past five years. Diversified Products of Canada Ltd., which supplies fitness equipment such as barbells, exercise weights, benches and stationary bicycles, reports a 100% increase in business in every year for the past three years. Says Diversified’s vice-president and general manager David Angas: “It’s all part of the fitness thing we’re experiencing. Even kids are learning that you can’t ski or play hockey without getting fit first.” The hottest item on the market is the stationary bike, the kind once hidden behind the door in doctors’ offices. Canadians bought more than 40,000 last year. Some manufacturers credit much of the new sales to the advent of morning television. Housewives can now pedal along to the Today Show and Dinah Shore.

While the women are cycling at home, their husbands are finding fitness at the office. Canadian corporations, although years behind American firms, are beginning to explore the notion that a fit employee may be a more productive employee—less likely to get sick and more likely to live longer. Recreation Canada, a branch of the federal health and welfare department, has set up fitness programs for the Post Office and the Department of Public Works in Ottawa. John Labatt began a serious fitness program for 73 employees two years ago in its London, Ont., brewery. Because of its success Labatt’s expanded the program to its London head office, its Toronto brewery, and is about to start a similar scheme in Halifax, complete with physical fitness director. James Richardson and Sons recently fashioned a fitness area on the 34th floor of the Richardson building in downtown Winnipeg, giving joggers a dazzling view of the city and on clear days even a couple of miles of prairie. In Toronto, IMPCO Health Screening, owned by Imperial Life Assurance Co., operates a gym and employs a full-time fitness director, who tests and works out programs for 100 Imperial Oil executives and 70 Imperial Life employees. As an incentive to keep fit, Imperial Oil asks employees to pay the fitness fee themselves and then reimburses them if they get a good fitness report.

“But there’s still a lot of reluctance,” says fitness director Jim Massie. “After all, you can’t quote dollars and cents figures to them. The rewards are down the line a way.” Nonetheless, the number of Canadian companies asking questions and looking at IMPCO’S program is growing every year. Adds Dr. Murray Hall, IMPCO president: “It won’t be too many years before all companies of any size have a fitness program. Any upturn in the economy or even a tax break for companies funding such programs, will bring a wave of corporate involvement.”

Sandy Keir, manager of fitness programs for Recreation Canada, is so bullish on corporate fitness that he has called for a Canadian law forcing corporations who employ people in sedentary jobs to supply space for them to work out. The West German government has passed just such a law.

The awareness seems to be seeping into the Canadian fabric everywhere. Says imPCO’s Dr. Hall, whose company performs hundreds of medical checks for business: “People in my office now apologize if they have not been doing exercise. They’re embarrassed.” Meanwhile, the percentage of fit employees passing through his test labs has increased enormously even in the past three years. Squash players and crosscountry skiers, he says, are the most fit.

But if fitness is indeed becoming the new Canadian ethic—why? Why is the traditional Canadian antidote to a hard day at the office—peace and quiet and a double scotch—suddenly giving way to four laps around the park? Why is the two-martini lunch being replaced by the sweat and strain of an hour on the squash court?

Part of the answer can be found in the nation’s shocking heart disease statistics and part in Ottawa’s promotion of Participaction. But the overriding fact is that fitness is its own best advertisement—and almost impossible to resist. People who are fit look better, feel better, do things better and seem to enjoy themselves more than unfit people. With the ability to run a seven-minute mile comes a new confidence, even cockiness. There is hardly a fitness buff in the country who will not tell you about it at the drop of a tennis sneaker.

“The fact is,” says Gina Caruso, a CBC secretary who caught the bug 2Vi years ago, “unless you have been fit, you can’t know what I mean when I say I feel better. It’s not just feeling better; it gives you a whole new outlook on the world.” Until her boss introduced her to Y fitness classes and the joys of jogging, Caruso was lethargic, gaining weight and had little interest in anything—including her job. “I didn’t care how my apartment looked. I really had no enthusiasm for anything.” Now, she says, “I care about everything. My mother visited me recently and couldn’t believe my apartment. I love my job, I feel more alert, I can accomplish more without getting tired. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Fitness conscious people claim that once the workouts become daily routine, they become as important as lunch or brushing one’s teeth. Caruso, who runs about 40 miles a week (to say nothing of teaching three fitness classes) missed more than a week of both recently. “I felt guilty and lazy. All I wanted in the world was a nice 10-mile run with maybe one good hill on it.” Guilt, in fact, keeps fitness buffs coming back as much as anything else. Says CBC personality Danny Finkleman, who does about three miles a day: “It’s like not making your bed. If you don’t do it you feel guilty.” On the more positive side, the fitness conscious person usually feels that if he has done his quota of work, some sort of indulgence is in order. Bob Kanko (see box) who started exercising three years ago, says: “If you’ve been to the gym four days that week you can lie in bed Saturday morning, dig into a big plate of spaghetti that night, and not feel even a tinge of guilt. And you enjoy it that much more.”

Perhaps because of the hard work involved in becoming fit, fitness buffs, especially those who have discovered it recently, tend to feel they belong to an exclusive club. There is a camaraderie that excludes the rest of us—at least until we’ve done the work and put in the hours. Squash players talk to each other about the wonders of squash; joggers passing each other in the park wave and smile like members of some cabal. But while a lot of fitness people display a sort of arrogance about their condition, it is the serious runner who seems to feel he has discovered the true meaning of life.

Runners (those who can log 50 miles a week or more) are wont to talk about their sport in mystical and poetic terms. They wax lyrical about the perfect unity between the body and the mind and the beautiful music in the rhythm of a pair of Pumas pounding the pavement. Runners claim to find peace and tranquillity as they lope through downtown city traffic. One female runner even claims that while trying to put in a six-minute mile at the end of a long run she experienced an orgasm.

And, indeed, because of the quickened heart rate and improved oxygen utilization runners can and do experience, after 30 minutes, “runners’ high”—a mild euphoria. After 40 minutes, a runner may find his thoughts becoming random and unorganized; ideas, seemingly from nowhere, pop into his head. After an hour, some runners say they settle into a state of altered awareness much like meditation. In this state, it is claimed, they can solve problems that have been bothering them, not with logical solutions but with insights that have just appeared in their heads. One runner, whose name is lost in the mythology of running, is said to have declared: “I have traveled the world looking for adventure and I found it in my own body.” There is, of course, a more prosaic view. Says the irreverent Danny Finkleman: “It’s the most boring thing in the world. I do it because it’s good for me.”

Mysticism and guilt aside, the crux of the new fitness wave can be found in Canada’s heart disease statistics. If ever there were an incentive to get fit it is the cold fact that one out of every five Canadian business executives now over 45 will suffer some sort of coronary heart disease before he reaches 55'. Furthermore, more than 25% of these will die. Cardiovascular disease still causes more than half the deaths in the country. While there is still probably a doctor or two who won’t recommend fitness as a way of reducing your odds on a heart attack, or at least improving your odds on surviving one, the evidence that it will seems overwhelming. When Toronto’s Dr. Terence Kavanagh, medical director of the Toronto Rehabilitation Centre, took eight heart attack patients to the Boston marathon in 1973 (seven completed it and the eighth ran as far as he had trained for). It pretty well put an end to the old medical maxim that a heart attack is nature’s way of telling you to slow down. Indeed, it appears to be nature’s way of telling you to speed up.

Most doctors won’t say that a regular fitness program will decrease your chances of having a heart attack since several factors, uninfluenced by fitness, can cause one. Nonetheless, inactive people are more likely—by two or three times—to suffer heart attacks than active people. Furthermore, active people have a two or three times better chance of surviving a first heart attack than inactive people.

The theory—and Kavanagh’s marathon heart patients notwithstanding, it is still theory—goes like this: the most obvious and constant result of regular exercise repeated week after week is a drop in the heart rate. As exercise causes the heart muscles to become more efficient, they need less oxygen to do the job. A conditioned heart can do that with fewer beats per minute than an unconditioned heart. If everything were unchanging in the human heart the obvious benefit of this would be that the fit heart would not wear out as fast as the unfit heart. Unfortunately, any number of things can stop your heart before it has a chance to wear out. Fortunately, exercise also has a beneficial influence on them as well.

A heart attack is caused when something impedes the flow of blood through the aorta—the big crown-like artery on top of your heart. The impediment—called a coronary occlusion—is most likely to be a blood clot. Whatever it is, it impedes the flow of blood to the heart so that your heart cannot get enough oxygen to keep you alive. You could die. A fit heart, the theory goes, can keep you alive with less oxygen. You either don’t have a heart attack or you survive the one you do have. That is the most dramatic benefit from fitness.

There are other less dramatic benefits. It is an unfortunate characteristic of the aorta that it tends to harden with age. Thus, even without a blood clot blocking the way, blood flow to the heart muscle gradually decreases, especially in men. Some factors that contribute to this hardening or narrowing of the aorta—cholesterol level being an important one—are affected by exercise. Furthermore, the blood clot that usually precipitates heart attacks can be affected by exercise. For some reason, an increase in fitness lengthens the clotting time of blood, probably by reducing the blood fat, making clots—and heart attacks—less likely.

While cardiovascular fitness as a medical tool is in its infancy, some interesting developments are being made. A Los Angeles psychiatrist who has formed a longdistance jogging group for mental patients and carries out group therapy during jogging, claims that as patients become fitter physically, they become fitter mentally. At the University of Maryland doctors have taken away the last rationalization for the double scotch after work. Controlled tests have shown that alcohol does not relax the body and reduce tension. The easing of tension experienced after a few belts is purely psychological. Only physical exercise will really relax the body.

And then there is sex. It is difficult to pin down just how big a part sex has played in the Canadian fitness explosion. Serious fitness people pooh-pooh the notion that there is any direct link between fitness and potency, other than the fact a fit person is less likely to tire in marathon sexual encounters. But there is no doubt the simple human desire to look better—and fit people usually do—is a great incentive to fitness. “The Coke ads,” says one doctor, “are as good an advertisement for fitness as they are for Coke. People, especially young people, want to look like that. They don’t want to be ashamed of their bodies when they strip in front of the opposite sex. I’d say it’s a more powerful motivation for fitness than even health.”

Fitness people generally concede that much, but are loath to admit to so base a reason for getting fit as bettering their performance in the sexual arena. Nonetheless there is probably not a runner anywhere who hasn’t reminded his date of that old saw: Marathon runners last longer.

Whatever the motivation, fitness has arrived in Canada. Bring on that 60-year-old Swede.