Messaging around exercise, healthy eating absent during pandemic, community advocate says

Winnipeg community advocate Abigail Byles says during the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada needs a new public health campaign to focus on the basics of healthy living.

A public health campaign that highlights overall best health practices is essential, says Abigail Byle

A good fitness regimen and healthy diet can help boost immune systems, according to the World Health Organization. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Winter is just beginning and numbers of COVID-19 cases are rising across Canada, with even the Atlantic bubble bursting. So we need to do more. 

As Canadians continue to live with social restrictions and isolation and start settling in for a winter of the same, I believe that our public health officials and governments need to correct course on some of their communications, and create an additional public health campaign to guide Canadians out of this pandemic. 

In my opinion, a public health campaign that highlights the importance of a strong immune system and encourages overall best health practices — such as exercise and healthy eating — to build immune systems is long overdue, since it's important to lessen demand on health-care services overall.

We all now know the basics of physical distancing, masks and handwashing, and as flu season begins, there has been funding to promote the flu shot. But there's been not much else in terms of public health messaging. 

Through my work in the community health sciences department at the University of Manitoba, I learned the importance of both the social determinants of health and of communication in public health promotion, but the message is not being delivered.

Health officials generally agree on the importance of diet and exercise, but in the recommendations from our public health officials, they don't seem to make the list.- Abigail Byle

Today, that message — of the importance of a healthy body in fighting viruses — seems to be restricted to health journals and health enthusiasts, who are probably already eating healthy and getting regular exercise, with little promotion by health officials or the media.

Instead, the focus has been on what not to do, and in many cases, at least in Manitoba, there's been plenty of scolding and finger wagging from a province that doesn't seem to have many answers or offer much support, especially as it closes businesses and restricts gatherings. 

It looks like it will take some time, years even, to really adapt and be able to live with this new virus, so I believe that promoting good health should actually be a priority for the government.

An notice in the Manitoba Free Press promoted healthy diet and exercise to stave off Spanish influenza. (Manitoba Archives)

Even in 1918, health officials promoted healthy exercise and eating as a way to help combat the Spanish influenza.

A Manitoba Free Press notice posted tips about how to protect from influenza. The first recommendation says that "a sound, healthy body resists the germs of influenza most successfully. Public health authorities urge you to eat plenty of wholesome food." 

(It also recommended hot milk as a medicine, so they didn't get everything right — but the fundamentals were there.)

Yet today, there is little discussion of general healthy habits or any health recommendations, beyond physical distancing, masks and handwashing. Those practices are all still crucial, but a more proactive approach is needed.

New guidelines

The World Health Organization's recommendations note that a healthy diet is important during the COVID-19 pandemic — not because it prevents COVID-19, but because "What we eat and drink can affect our body's ability to prevent, fight and recover from infections," the WHO says.

"While no foods or dietary supplements can prevent or cure COVID-19 infection, healthy diets are important for supporting immune systems," the organization says.

Health officials generally agree on the importance of diet and exercise, but in the recommendations from our public health officials, they don't seem to make the list.

Winter and social restrictions due to the pandemic will make it even more challenging for Canadians, so some proactive messaging and a communications plan from Ottawa and the province is key to keeping Canadians safe and healthy.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Abigail Byle is a writer, editor and advocate from Hamilton, Ont., now living in Winnipeg. She has worked in education for more than 10 years. Follow her on Twitter at @abbyinitio.


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