Opinion: Fitness and gym memberships should be tax-deductible

Feb 14 2022, 7:05 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Sara Hodson, CEO of LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic and President of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada  

No one will argue that exercise is medicine. Repeated studies in scientific and medical journals for the last three decades have proven that over 50% of our health can be attributed to unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, diet, and physical inactivity. 

Exercise can be used for both the prevention and treatment of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease — the number one killer of Canadian women — diabetes, and obesity. It can also be as effective as antidepressants and is an antidote for the stress and anxiety we are experiencing in this challenging world. Exercise is essential and we need to make the fitness industry an essential part of our healthcare system.

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And yet, the needle on physical activity has hardly moved in the last three decades — if anything, it has moved in the wrong direction. The 2021 ParticipAction report said we have an “inactivity crisis” — we are actually sitting more and moving less. 

The fitness industry has also suffered from being repeatedly shut down, due to extensive restrictions, reduced capacities, and unfounded fear of exercising in a public space in spite of strong evidence worldwide that, with safe physical distancing and good sanitation protocols, there is no increased risk of COVID-19 infection in gyms. 

The Fitness Industry Council (FIC) of Canada has a plan to solve both problems — inactivity and getting fitness memberships back to pre-pandemic levels: we want to make gym memberships a tax deduction for all Canadians. 

In 2021, we made a proposal to the federal government: make fitness memberships eligible as a medical tax deduction under line 33099. Although it didn’t make it into the budget, we continue to hold meetings with federal government officials. Here’s why: financial incentives for exercise work. 

Last June, the FIC conducted a nationwide survey to find out what holds Canadians back from working towards a healthier lifestyle. In our industry, we have long known that time and money are contributing factors to inactivity; with long working hours, it is hard to fit in a workout. Cost is also a barrier — many Canadians see a gym membership as a luxury they can’t afford. From our findings we made astounding discoveries:

  • Six out of 10 Canadians say they would be motivated to purchase a gym membership if the government implemented a tax deduction. 
  • 40% of Canadians say that including fitness club fees as a medical expense would motivate them to create a fitness routine. 
  • 27% of Canadians who had never worked out in a gym before would be motivated to join a gym if there was a financial incentive. That means nearly one-third of our inactive population could be motivated to join a gym. 
  • The survey showed this tax deduction was endorsed by all income brackets, and nearly 40% of Canadians in the lower-income bracket stated that a tax deduction would incentivize them to create a healthy fitness routine. 

Social isolation has taken a toll on us in the last two years. We need community, we need accountability, and we need support. We also need the expertise of the fitness community to help those who have been entirely sedentary, seniors and people living with chronic illness. 

The fitness industry has evolved in the last two years, and our image is changing. We are no longer about aesthetics and a performance-based model. The “gym rats” were the first in our doors when we reopened on January 18, but what we have heard repeatedly from our members is how essential the gym is for their physical and mental health.  

The cost of inactivity is too high  

A 2012 study from Queens University found that the cost of physical inactivity is estimated at $6.8 billion annually. The pandemic of inactivity will create ripple effects for years to come if we don’t intervene now. The data is beginning to emerge. A November 2021 report from the Canadian Medical Association found that the physical and mental health effects of delayed care were evident in increased anxiety, depression, substance use, and more than additional 4,000 deaths in 2020 can be attributed to Canadian patients putting off health care visits. Cancer screenings have plummeted and heart disease is going undetected; this month, Heart and Stroke reports that immediate action needs to be taken on cardiovascular disease or our hospitals will overflow with heart conditions.

Is exercise the be all and end all? Of course not. But is it a prevention and treatment tool that every Canadian should have access to? Absolutely. Healthy habit change is hard. How many times have you joined a gym and never went? We need fitness experts to not only get people moving but to keep them moving. We know that financial incentives work — from quitting smoking to getting your vaccine, we have seen that dangling a carrot is effective. A review published in the British Medical Journal found that financial incentives can get us moving more.  

The fitness industry is ready and willing to help get Canada’s physical and mental health back on track. Canada could become a global leader in making exercise a priority. You can email your MP and let them know you believe fitness should be a tax deduction.

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