Health costs climb, while Canadians sit still

Leah Geller
March 1, 2023

Sedentary behaviour in Canadians costs an estimated $2.2 billion per year in productivity losses and health care expenses, says a study released this January in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

The average Canadian spends a whopping nine to 10 hours a day in sedentary behaviour, which includes activities such as sitting at a computer, driving a car or lying down to watch TV. Canadian guidelines recommend adults limit sedentary time to eight hours or less per day, above which can lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression, and stroke, even in younger adults.

Jean-Philippe Chaput is a Senior Scientist with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity (HALO) Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Ottawa.

He and his colleagues conducted the study in an effort to get decision makers to enact policies that increase the activity levels of Canadians and reduce their high rate of sedentary behaviour.     

“It is time to find solutions to this problem,” said Chaput in an interview with Research Money. “Given that the economic costs associated with sitting too much have never been quantified in Canada, we thought that such a study could help motivate actions aimed at reducing this risk factor, ultimately improving Canadians’ health.” 

The study found that the two most expensive chronic diseases attributable to excessive sedentary behaviour were cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. It also showed that just a 10 percent decrease in excessive sedentary behaviour in Canadians — from 87.7% of the population to 77.7 percent — could save an estimated $219 million per year in health care and productivity costs.

“We know that reducing sedentary behaviour in the population is not an easy task,” said Chaput. “But not doing anything is irresponsible from a public health perspective. Given the high rate of sedentary behaviour in Canada, our policy makers and employers need to act to reduce sitting time.”

Sit-stand desks an affordable, scalable solution

According to Chaput, Canadians spend a lot of time sitting at work, so any solution that breaks that pattern can be helpful. Many studies have shown that sit-stand desks do just that: helping to reduce sedentary behaviour while improving productivity. Sit-stand desks are generally inexpensive, and more and more employers are covering the cost, as workplace wellness programs become more popular.

“It’s important for people to understand that it’s possible to be very active and very sedentary at the same time,” said Chaput. “Being active means that someone is meeting the physical activity guidelines, which is 150 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity per week for adults. However, it’s possible to sit a lot for the rest of the day and we should aim to maximize movement throughout the day, not only for the small daily window used for exercise.”

Chaput added that environments conducive to the adoption of healthy active living are an important part of the solution. “It’s about making the healthy choice the easy one for people. When I was living in Copenhagen, it was natural for me to bike everywhere because the city is really about making active transportation safe and easy for people. When there was snow, bike paths were cleared first — even before the streets!”

What Canada can learn from the Netherlands

The Dutch are the most physically active on earth, on average getting 12.8 hours of exercise per week, compared to 6.6 hours for Canadians. And their sedentary time is about two hours less per day than Canadians, at 7 to 8 hours compared to our 9 to 10 hours.

Good infrastructure in the Netherlands plays a big role in how active the Dutch are, with a large number of bicycle and foot paths making it easy to walk or cycle. Almost one in five trips in the Netherlands are made on foot, and the average resident cycles more than 1,000 kilometers per year. Meanwhile, the average Canadian spends more than an hour per day sitting in their car.

About a third of adults in the Netherlands report riding a bicycle to get to their place of work or education, while only 4 percent do so in Canada — rates even lower than those in the United States and Great Britain. Safety and traffic are major concerns for Canadians, with almost half of respondents (48 percent) saying that cycling from one place to another in their area is too dangerous.

Chris Bruntlett is a Canadian urban mobility advocate, now living in the Netherlands. As communications manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, he shares lessons with cities around the world who want to emulate the Netherlands’ success with active transportation.

“Even in sprawling North American cities, half of all car journeys are five kilometers or less, a distance many people would cycle if a safe, comfortable and well-maintained network of infrastructure was in place,” he explained.

In response to those who cite Canada’s winters as the biggest barrier, Bruntlett said, “Every geographic location has its own challenges to getting more people cycling — whether climate, density or topography. But examples from around the world, in places such as Oulu, Finland and Bogotá, Colombia, have shown these are largely surmountable with great infrastructure and maintenance.”

Much like present-day Canada, the development of Dutch cycling infrastructure 50 years ago was a tense and difficult political struggle. “In the 1970s and 1980s, Dutch politicians recognized that, despite vocal opposition, they had the support of a quiet majority, and reallocated road and curb space for active transportation,” said Bruntlett. “Once the measures were implemented, controversy quickly died down and residents embraced the safer streets — and re-elected the politicians who made them happen.”


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