Anyone who grew up in the ‘80s will have fond memories of the Flexed Arm Hang, the Shuttle Run, and Speed Sit-ups in an effort to bring home the coveted Award of Excellence from the Canada Fitness Test. I certainly do. The Flexed Arm Hang was my nemesis that kept me settling for Gold year after year.
I can still hear the voices of Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod telling us to, “keep fit and have fun.” But as we celebrate Canada’s 150th across the country this summer we can also look back on a history of the quest for health, fitness and performance that goes back much further.
Rumours exist about early Canadian settlers staying fit by chasing Beavers through the woods of Upper Canada and strapping knives on their feet in winter to traverse the St. Lawrence. Some say that early Canadian Strongmen could lift a Moose overhead after a shot of pure Maple Syrup, the first Canadian energy drink. The truth is that in 1867 Canada may have just been getting started but striving for physical fitness and elevated performance and the trends, fads and ideas that inevitably followed were well underway.
In the early days of humankind, the survival of the fittest was truly about survival. Today, in many ways it still is.
The Greeks and Romans had things well in hand and the concept of physical conditioning was paramount to producing the kind of military might that could conquer the world. Following World War I, it was revealed that the majority of military personnel were unfit for combat. This became one of the original drivers of ramping up Physical Education programs in schools.
Military strength and conditioning has often led the way in terms of research when it comes to understanding what the human body (and mind) are capable of and how far humans can be pushed (or not pushed). As much as military style training has evolved and proven highly successful, it is certainly not for everyone.
Historically times of war often underscored the need for fitness for the people serving in combat. After wars, however, people were more prone to celebrate, relax, and exercise less. While many cultures have always emphasized the importance of health and fitness by emphasizing the connection of mind to body, North American culture has created more of a love-hate relationship, as economic success, prosperity, technological advances, the devolution of our food industry toward processed, faster food and other distractions have recently become the excuses for a decrease in overall health and fitness.
Around the same time as Sir John A. Macdonald was being sworn in as our first Prime Minister, gymnastics and calisthenics style training were still the dominant choice but strength training was beginning to emerge and the as the 20th Century began, competitive and recreational sports began to grow, as both entertainment and as a career option where the best athletes could rise to the top of the pop culture radar and make a living doing it.
Leading the way in Canada was the YMCA which opened its door first in Montreal in 1851. The Y did not become full become a destination for health and fitness until a little later after basketball was officially “invented” by Canadian James Naismith at a YMCA Training school in Massachusetts. YMCA programs for volleyball, swimming and physical education and development overall soon followed over the next few years and it has played a significant role in the development of leaders, and physically fit Canadians ever since.
Since the Canadian economy has always been strongly connected to the US, as the economy in North America suffered in the 20’s and 30s, so did the focus on Physical Education. It was around this time when the first celebrity of fitness, Jack LaLanne first began to develop the programming and equipment that became the foundation of the modern fitness movement. He opened his first “health club” in 1936 and became the “Father of the Fitness Movement” with his TV show that put fitness into the limelight and paved the way for fitness in the pop culture.
Suddenly being fit, healthy, and probably more importantly, LOOKING fit and healthy became all the rage. Everyone was getting physical with Olivia Newton John, Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda, the 20 minute workout.
Jogging and Jazzaercise, Spandex and leg warmers, were targeted to women while Arnold and Lou Ferigno became the face of bodybuilding for men. Aerobics classes and exercise machines such as Nautilus revolutionized the health club market as it gave people a safe, simple way to exercise when getting under a bar and banging out a set of squats or bench presses was not for everyone. This was also the time where we went away from functional athletic movement and focused more on what bodies looked like than how they moved and performed. This was the age of confusion for people as businesses began to capitalize on insecurities, egos and fads to sell gym memberships fitness products and supplements rather than understanding and developing the skills and knowledge people needed to actually get better.
Instead of knowing how to run, balance, jump, crawl, climb, lift, carry, throw and catch things, we simply strapped into a machine built for one muscle, performed a set of repetitions and waited for the magic to happen. If only it was that easy.
Performance to Podium
Participation and training for specific sports has shown incredible growth following success by Canadian athletes in the Olympics, as each Olympic cycle since Montreal in 1976, Calgary in 1988, and Vancouver in 2010 has inspired more people participating in sport, more funding, better coaching and an ongoing growth and evolution of Canadian High Performance Sport.
It is interesting to see the cycle of participation is sport surge based on Olympic success and professional sport success. With the recent playoff success of the Toronto Blue Jays over the past few seasons, baseball registration has increased by over 15,000 participants from previous years.
Back to the Future
At TWIST we believe everyone is an athlete and the objective for everyone is the same, start from where you are, move a little every day, move a little better every day and you will, get better every day. Once work, school and sports practices are over, get out and play with your family, try a new sport or activity, get on your bikes, go for a hike, take advantage of everything Canada has to offer.
Canada is a unique country with tons of opportunity and no excuses. We should be a world leader, not struggling to keep up. We are fortunate to have educated and experienced fitness and health professionals everywhere who are armed with the knowledge, the skills and the facilities to help teach everyone how to maximize their health, fitness and performance. It is up to each person to quarterback their health and wellness and the health and wellness of their families so that we can enjoy all things Canada for another 150 years.
Believe it or not, true off-season conditioning for many team sport athletes on a wide scale has only been around since the 80’s. Before that training camp was literally, camp for training for the season. From a Canadian perspective where hockey is king, one of the drivers for improving fitness in hockey, was the intense rivalry we had with the Russian teams of the 70’s. Were most Canadian players played golf, drank beer and smoked a pack a day through the off-season, the Russian Red Army trained hard and used many techniques that are still part of off-ice training programs today.
Canada Fitness Report Card
Despite High Performance sport success, increases in sport focus, sport funding and sport participation, and despite new revelations in training, sport science and many technological advances in the industry, as Canadians we continue to get worse instead of better. In the 2016 The ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, Canada received a D MINUS, while countries like Slovenia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe are leading the way. This is unacceptable!
Often, even the kids participating in elite level sport still do not actually reach the minimum criteria for activity each week. We have the outdoor space, the knowledge, the opportunity and the people to lead the way. Now is the time!
There are so many sports, activities, facilities and opportunities for kids to be more active. Parents, you need to lead the charge by connecting with your kids about the importance of being active and healthy. YOU need to become role models, learn to quarterback your own wellness and create a more active healthier household. You need to get your kids off the couch, away from their devices and get them back outside to play.