Medicating rather than living healthily is an expensive trend

Health care investment doesn't necessarily mean healthier populations writes Rob Wynen

It’s not often that I get asked to meet with someone to discuss what my job is like and if I could give any words of wisdom to students looking at getting into the health and fitness profession, so getting two in one week was a bit strange. 

Maybe it’s a sign I’m getting old and must’ve gained some insight into the industry over my years of experience (the latter is debatable). 

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The conversations with the students, both in their twenties and from Bowen, left me a bit worried. Their assumptions about future trends goes something like this: people are getting older, obesity and many associated diseases are on the rise, fitness is shown to be the best cure/preventative measure for many of these ailments, therefor there will be lots of demand for professionals in the health and fitness industry.  

It was the same logic that led me down the path of kinesiology and exercise physiology, but it is faulty logic.

Preventative health has pretty much been at a standstill in Canada, or more accurately, has never really taken off.  Inactivity and poor food consumption are up, as are medical interventions. 

In Canada we spend about $4,600 per person/year on medical intervention and yet our life expectancy — 81.96 years — is pretty close to that of Chile where the medical costs add up to $1,700. (Chile has a life expectancy of 81.5 years). 

The country with the highest costs, not surprisingly, is the U.S.: $9,451 person/year. Here is the kicker: the life expectancy is there 78.9 years. That’s less than Chile, which spends five times less than the U.S.  

If you still believe a private “competitive” health care system gets better results, I would give your head a good shake. The relationship between how much we spend on our medical system and our outcomes is debatable. More is not always better, and often it is worse.  

One may want to question how a country like Chile manages to have similar health outcomes to a rich country like Canada. What is their secret?  

I believe much of it comes down to lifestyle: walking, eating less junk and leading a less frantic lifestyle. In short: preventative health. 

They don’t call it that, they just do it.  

Both of the students sitting in my office didn’t need much convincing. They know that there are some major flaws in our medical system, that health does not mean a trip to the doctor and that people who make healthier lifestyle choices tend to live longer and happier lives.  

Why not be part of such a profession?  

The sad fact is that most health professionals working outside of our medical system do very poorly financially.  It is a tough way to make a living — few people want to hear that the two-for-one burger night does not give one permission to eat two burgers or that walking to the ferry is a better choice than driving one’s car into the Cove, even if the muni is covering their parking costs.  

We have become a nation that visits our medical system on a very regular basis, gets regular “check-ups” and pops over to emergency if little Jimmy’s fever doesn’t disappear within  two days. We have increasingly associated health with medicine and, as recently demonstrated by my 82-year-old client who proudly told me she was 82 and had never seen a doctor in her life, it was not always this way.

I belong to the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologists, which puts out a yearly report card on health and fitness trends and recommendations.  

The trends over the years are very consistent, they all point in the down direction.  The last report on children’s activity level gave our youth a score of D+. 

While this is up from the previous D-, it is still absolutely pathetic and one of the lowest scores in the world.  

Why has this happened in a well-educated country like ours and what the heck is up with this generation of parents (yours truly included)?

We know all about the health risks of not being active and fit. We know what to do, so why are we moving away from what we all know we should be doing?  

On island we’ve spent three decades talking about a cross-island path so kids can safely walk and bike to school and we are still talking, though positive signs are on the horizon for this project.  

Our community school, even with a proactive, fitness-focused principal, still looks like a Walmart parking lot on the opening day of Black Friday (full of cars) even with studies showing that kids who walk/cycle to school generally have grades 10 per cent higher than those who don’t. This stat is even greater than those comparing the marks of students who don’t eat breakfast vs those who do.

Little seems to be changing.  If anything, the slide to lethargy continues.  

Not a lot of parents would send their kids to school hungry, yet most wouldn’t think twice about driving their kids to school. Why?

When I see the health issues of middle-aged clients at my work, people who had a much more active youth than those of today, it makes me wonder what is in store for the upcoming generation. The predictions from the experts are not pretty. Even with increases in medical advancements, the next generation of Canadians is predicted to have a shorter lifespan and one with more illness. This will likely lead to more costs and a less productive and happy citizenry.  

For students like the two who visited me at work, it is a perplexing phenomenon but a good life lesson: things don’t always go in a direction that makes sense and you shouldn’t apply too much logic to predict human behaviour.  

My message to them was not what they had expected but a message I wish I heard when I was in their shoes.  

While I don’t regret my career decision, luckily I ended up in a fairly well paying profession, the next generation of fitness and health professionals will increasingly be conflicted between making a good living in such an expensive place to live and working in a meaningful profession they love.  

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