Only a quarter of British Columbians meet national exercise guidelines regularly

The pandemic did little to disrupt the reported exercise habits of British Columbians | Brizmaker/Getty Images

Exercise can be a crucial component of our daily routines.

When Canadians first learned about COVID-19, gyms were among the first establishments to be shut down. Sports leagues – professional and amateur – also cancelled games and tournaments. For those who sought to maintain a decent level of physical fitness, the prospects were murky.

The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. This month, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about their adherence to these guidelines before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Canadians look back at the state of affairs in late 2019 and early 2020, only 24 per cent acknowledge meeting the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines every week. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, from March 2020 to November 2022, only 20 per cent of Canadians were able to exercise for 150 minutes every week.

Now that gyms are open and there are no restrictions on capacity or mask mandates, the country’s fitness level is not where it used to be. Only 21 per cent of Canadians claim to have met the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines every week for the past three months.

There are some regional disparities as we trace the fitness level of Canadians over the past three years. British Columbia and Ontario are bastions of composure, with fluctuations that are not dramatic across all three stages. In British Columbia, 25 per cent of residents met the exercise guidelines before the pandemic, 24 per cent maintained them during COVID-19, and 26 per cent have been active in the past three months. Ontario’s curve is comparable: 22 per cent followed the guidelines before COVID-19, 21 per cent at the height of the pandemic, and 22 per cent since the end of 2022.

Atlantic Canada is a bit of a success story, with 19 per cent of residents meeting the exercise guidelines before COVID-19 and 16 per cent staying strong during the pandemic. In the past three months, there is a marked improvement: 22 per cent of Atlantic Canadians have exercised for 150 minutes every week. The story is similar in Manitoba and Saskatchewan: 27 per cent exercising before COVID-19, 21 per cent at the height of the pandemic  and 24 per cent in recent weeks.

This leaves two provinces where the situation can be described as dire. In Quebec, only 20 per cent of residents recall exercising for 150 minutes every week before the start of the pandemic. The proportion falls to 14 per cent during the pandemic, and to 15 per cent in the past three months.

Still, the biggest disappointment is observed in Alberta. Just over a third of residents (34 per cent) say they met the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines every week before COVID-19. During the pandemic, only 25 per cent kept at it. In the past three months, just 24 per cent have exercised every week for a least 150 minutes.

At the national level, there is a worrying trend. The country has gone from 23 per cent of residents never meeting the guidelines before the pandemic, to 26 per cent at the height of the pandemic, and to 28 per cent over the past three months. The absence of mandates was supposed to make people more active. Instead, the proportion of residents who seemingly never exercise has grown by five points.

The demographic analysis shows trouble for Canadians aged 55 and over. While 34 per cent of the country’s oldest adults had already eschewed the exercise guidelines before COVID-19, the proportion grew to 37 per cent during the pandemic and to 39 per cent in the past three months.

Part of the problem can be traced back to residents forgetting that fitness options do not require a gym membership. Only 30 per cent of Canadians aged 55 and over took specific action to exercise during the pandemic, whether it entailed following workouts or routines online, acquiring weightlifting equipment or a cardio machine for their home, or taking up a sport that did not require equipment. In stark contrast, 57 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 54 and 75 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 did something to remain active.

The generational divide is also present when Canadians ponder their current state of fitness. The youngest adults are more likely to say that they are doing better now than before the pandemic (28 per cent). Only 15 per cent of those aged 55 and over issue the same judgement.

Some hoped that the current stage of COVID-19 would result in added interest in exercise and fitness. Our survey shows that some groups struggled more than others during the pandemic. At a time of heightened concerns about the state of the health care system, it is discouraging to see that almost three in ten Canadians have apparently chosen to abandon exercise altogether—including almost two in five of those aged 55 and over.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from Feb. 16-18, 2023, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error – which measures sample variability – is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.