Weighing in on the health and well-being of Canadians

James Sallis
Dr. James Sallis, 2012 Bloomberg Manulife Prize recipient.

Our sedentary lifestyle is slowly killing us. Research shows that more than half of all Canadian adults and almost one in three children are overweight or obese. The direct and indirect costs on the health care system are estimated to be in excess of $4.3 billion a year, or an average of 6 per cent of annual provincial health care expenditures.

But thanks to the Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health, established through a combined $2-million gift from Toronto financier Lawrence S. Bloomberg, MBA’65, and corporate partner Manulife Financial, world-class researchers have a new forum to publicize their findings on how we can lead healthier, more active lives. The $50,000 annual prize, administered by the McGill Faculty of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, recognizes an academic whose research has made a significant impact on the health and well-being of a broad spectrum of the population.

Dr. James Sallis, winner of the prize in 2012, believes that staying in shape takes more than just willpower – it takes an environment that is conducive to physical activity. And the hundreds of studies he has conducted have proven him right: people living in communities where schools, stores, offices and recreational facilities are accessible by foot or cycle tend to be leaner and healthier than those who must travel by car to get to them.

The inaugural winner of the prize was Dr. Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina, who was among the first researchers to show that even moderate increases in fitness, regardless of one’s weight, can translate into significantly reduced mortality rates.

“I believe that disease can be prevented by changes in lifestyle,” says Bloomberg – not a surprising position coming from a longtime exercise enthusiast who named his financial services company First Marathon Inc. Leading healthier lives will of course also alleviate the burden on our healthcare system, he adds.

The funding also established two Bloomberg-Manulife Fellowships, valued at $22,500 each, which are awarded annually to PhD students in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education who show exceptional promise in their field.

Fennigje Purves-Smith, who received a fellowship in 2011, says the award has allowed her to fully immerse herself in her research, which explores the possibility that exercise helps maintain communication between our muscles and the nervous system, which controls muscle movement. “The benefits of receiving a Bloomberg-Manulife Fellowship to my career as a young scientist far exceed the fellowship’s monetary value,” she says.

And she’s right: with any luck, she – and all of us – will also benefit from her research findings as we age.