Physical Activity Promotion in Ontario

In part I of this blog series, we will begin by looking at the physical activity promotion efforts of the Government of Ontario’s ministries responsible for physical activity, sport and recreation1 (there have been many names and focuses over the years) and health.2 A document recounting all of the efforts of the Ontario Government could easily be a textbook! Therefore, in the spirit of readability, combined with an effort to do justice to the extensive contribution made, we have provided a high-level history in which early government efforts, beginning in the 1970s sought to get Ontarians active, while also setting the stage for many of the initiatives that continue to influence physical activity efforts in Ontario and, it is argued, the country.


The province of Ontario has a rich history of physical activity promotion and, as such, has also been a major contributor to physical activity promotion in Canada. Ontario, like all provinces and territories, has benefited from and been influenced by a number of national and international efforts and events since the early 1900s. Perhaps a seminal event in Canada that spurred Canada to action in its efforts to increase physical activity was a visit from Prince Philip in the late 1950s. During a speech, he reproached Canadians for their sedentary lifestyles and said that the result of this inactivity would render Canada ill prepared to respond to an emergency, such as another war.3

By the late 1960s, concern over declining fitness levels as well as increasing rates of heart disease and health care costs prompted the development of Bill C-131 – An Act to Promote Fitness and Amateur Sport as well as the creation of Sport Canada and Recreation Canada, renamed Fitness Canada in 1980. In the 1970s, major national conferences focusing on health and fitness took place, the Canada Fitness Awards were launched, the first Canada Fitness Survey was implemented and ParticipACTIO N was created. Further, A New Perspective on the Health of Canadians was published in 1974 and became a fundamental resource for physical activity promoters, as it encouraged sport programs, employers, unions, municipalities and the women’s movement to support physical activity promotion efforts in Canada.4 Canada has played a key role in physical activity promotion through its many contributions in the areas of program and resource development, research and policy.

Physical Activity Promotion in Ontario: Government Efforts

In 1977, the Ontario government created seven new positions to promote fitness (the popular term at that time). They focused on Leadership, Communications, Employee Fitness, Fitness Testing, Awards Programs, Research and Community Development. The approach, which focused on the communities delivering the programming, became a foundation upon which the National Recreation Statement was based. The seven positions created in Ontario were designed to augment and deliver services that would pass though the municipalities to the local residents in communities directly. Some of the highlights of each of the areas included:


By the early 1980s, Ontario created the Fitness Ontario Leadership Program (FOLP), a key program that developed fitness class training and certification. It provided the impetus for the National Fitness Leader Advisory Committee which developed fitness standards used across the country. FOLP was instrumental in training fitness leaders to promote and deliver classes for children/youth, older adults, adults, pre- and post-natal women, and others.


Posters and brochures were regularly distributed through health units and recreation departments bearing the Fitness Ontario logo. A main feature of Communications was the development of different public service campaigns, one of which featured Roland Michener, Governor General for Canada (1967-74).5 He was a keen fitness advocate so was a willing participant. However, Michener thought that he was doing a ParticipACTION ad, when, in fact, he was doing the ad for Fitness Ontario! Another well known (to some of us) communications initiative of Fitness Ontario was the Seventh Inning Stretch. Twelve “stretchers” were hired to lead the crowd in simple stretching exercises at every game to the tune of “Okay! Blue Jays! Let’s play ball!”. The Stretch continues to this day (through a different organization).

Employee Fitness

Supported by Wintario funding ($1 lottery tickets), employers could apply for grants to start and support a workplace fitness program including capital funding for renovations or building facilities as well as to purchase equipment to support physical activity during the work day. The capital funding disappeared after five years, but the grants continued to support the purchase of equipment. Workplace conferences were also an important part of the strategy.

Fitness Testing

For approximately six years, seven vans, stationed geographically across the province, housed staff and equipment to do fitness promotion, testing and other initiatives. With the large amount of data generated, the University of Ottawa created a national database that supported the Standardized Test of Fitness.

The Fitness Ontario Awards Program

Fit Five was a promotional campaign that encouraged people to get active by completing fitness activities organized into five levels. Level 1 required the completion of 100 fitness activities, level 2, required 200 activities, and so on. In total, there were 1,500 challenges. Taking approximately one year to complete, participants could get up to five certificates. At any one time, there were approximately 25,000 participants in the program across the province. Interestingly, this was before the time of computers so people had to complete the paper work by hand and mail it in for their certification!


A great deal of social science research was done that generated a number of reports. One example was “Those who know but don’t do”, intended to inform municipal parks and recreation staff of why Ontarians did or didn’t participate in parks and recreation programs. Employee fitness research was another major focus of the research.

Community Development

Regional ministry staff supported (and still support) the development of grants. Originally, their whole focus was sport and recreation, but as a result of government downsizing over the years, they took on other areas such as culture, citizenship and tourism, among others.

Other Contributions

Throughout the 1980s:

  • The Government of Ontario became more involved in communicating the science around physical activity promotion. The 1988 International Conference on Exercise, Fitness and Health provided an opportunity for top, international researchers and practitioners to come together to share, learn and create a consensus about the relationships among exercise, fitness and health.
  • The Fitness Safety Standards Committee put together a set of standards that guided Fitness Centres about how fitness programs should be operated (included the use of the Par-Q).
  • Fitness Canada, with the Interprovincial Sport and Recreation Council (ISRC), came together and formed national committees to harmonize common approaches across the country. The result was that most of the provinces and territories were doing the same kinds of things with respect to fitness class leadership and fitness testing (Standardized Test of Fitness). The Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute (CFLRI) conducted fitness surveys to support the provinces and territories.
  • Many provinces and territories were creating their own communications campaigns Ontario, worked in partnership with ParticipACTION to create province-specific campaigns, such as “Put Your Heart into It”. In the late 80s, as a result of a meeting between Government of Ontario officials and then ParticipACTION president Russ Kisby, ParticipACTION Ontario was formed.

In the 1990s:

  • The term “active living” was coined by the federal government, which included support for the development of a number of “Blueprints for Action”, essentially representing the first national strategic approaches to promoting physical activity in specific populations (e.g. children and youth, older adults, people with a disability, etc.). The concept of active living greatly influenced much of the work in Ontario and other provinces and territories.
  • In 1992, 950 delegates (researchers, educators, practitioners, policy-makers) attended the second International Conference on Physical Activity, Fitness, and Health which took place in Toronto. The timing of the event followed The Second International Consensus Symposium on Physical Activity in which 80 of the top international researchers developed consensus statements in 70 specific topics. The consensus statements were, then, presented at the Conference.6 With active living as a foundation of the conference, delegates had an opportunity to discuss how to strengthen the policy fundamentals for those sectors trying to convince local municipalities to spend tax dollars on physical activity and recreation.

The Role of Health

While the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care plays a very significant role in Ontario, many of their important efforts take place at the local/regional level. This important work could fill a book! However, a short blurb is offered in an effort to ensure their prominent role in physical activity promotion in Ontario is acknowledged.

Broadly defined, “the work of public health is important to the overall promotion of a healthier population, reducing the demand on the health care system, and responding to threats to the health of the public.”7 Local Public Health Departments (currently 36 in the province of Ontario) are directed by the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care to carry out mandatory health programs and services. Given this directive, public health has been an integral part of the community, often leading and organizing the efforts of government and non-government partners. Physical activity promotion has had a prominent focus throughout the years as is still reflected in the current Ontario Public Health Standards 2008 (Revised in May 2016). Seven requirements currently direct public health officials to promote physical activity using a comprehensive health promotion approach, which includes monitoring and surveillance, capacity building, building supportive environments and community policy and working with schools and workplaces.

Some of the Recent Contributions from the Government of Ontario (The 2000s)

  • The Ontario government was instrumental in developing a number of strategies over the years including Active 2010, developed in late 2003/early 2004. It set out goals and objectives until 2010 that focused on both physical activity and amateur sport. The legacy of Active 2010 was the development of a number of programs and resources. It also positioned Ontario to make a significant contribution to national initiatives including the new National Framework for Recreation, Active Canada 20/20 and the Canadian Sport Policy.
  • Along with 13 other Health Promotion Resource Centres funded by the Government of Ontario, the Physical Activity Resource Centre (PARC) was established in 2003. As the Centre of Excellence for physical activity promotion in Ontario, its key objective is to reduce chronic disease through physical activity. PARC promotes collaboration and use of best practices related to physical activity policy, programs, and resources to support physical activity promoters and other community stakeholders in implementing strategies across multiple sectors and across the lifespan that have an impact and produce results. Click here to view the full list of health promotion resource centres.
  • One of the most widely circulated and influential reports from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, came in 2004 from the Chief Medical Officer of Health (Sheila Basrur) titled Healthy Weights Healthy Lives.8 Its release corresponded with the development of the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) strategy, which facilitated a more concerted effort to join forces with the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation. Though short-lived, there was even the amalgamation of Sport and Health Promotion into its own ministry.
  • In 2005, the Ministry of Education enacted the Daily Physical Activity policy (PPM 138) that supports and promotes the participation of students in daily physical activity. Consequently, school boards must ensure that all elementary students, including students with special needs, have a minimum of twenty minutes of sustained moderate to vigorous physical activity each school day during instructional time. The goal of daily physical activity is to enable all elementary students to improve or maintain their physical fitness and their overall health and wellness, and to enhance their learning opportunities.
  • Given that chronic disease has overtaken infectious diseases as the leading cause of death and disability worldwide, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care developed Preventing and Managing Chronic Disease: Ontario’s Framework in 2007. This evidence- and population-based policy framework informs planning for chronic disease prevention and management in Ontario.
  • In 2008, Ontario launched a Diabetes Strategy, in which physical inactivity is an important indicator.
  • The Province of Ontario continued its support of knowledge exchange by supporting on international conference (to date). The 2010 International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health was held in Toronto, at which time The Toronto Charter for Physical Activity Promotion: A Global Call for Action was unveiled. With the Physical Activity Resource Centre (PARC) hosting an international stakeholder professional development and networking session in conjunction with the Congress.
  • Ontario’s After School Program was developed in 2009 as part of Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy and was expanded in 2012 as part of Ontario’s Youth Action Plan. The program helps to fund sport and recreation organizations to deliver quality programs that help kids get active, develop healthy eating habits and develop confidence to do better in school. Primarily run between 3:00 – 6:00 p.m., children and youth in priority neighbourhoods across the province are the main recipients of the programs.
  • In January, 2012 the Ontario government set the goal of reducing childhood obesity by 20% by 2018. In March 2013, the Ontario Healthy Kids Panel was tasked with developing recommendations to meet that goal and, in response, released a report on how Ontario can best make a difference in promoting the health and well-being of children and youth and thus lay the foundation for the future health and success of our province. The panel made 23 recommendations and a number of implementation strategies as part of a three-part strategy. The target audience includes governments, policy-makers, thought leaders, businesses, media, professionals and service providers.
  • In 2013, Independence, Activity and Good Health: Ontario’s Action Plan for Seniors, was developed. It identified three main goals - Healthy Seniors, Senior-Friendly Communities, and Safety and Security – and a significant number of programs and initiatives through which to meet them.
  • #CycleON: Ontario’s Cycling Strategy from the Ministry of Transportation looks ahead 20 years and outlines what needs to be done to promote cycling across the province as a viable mode of transportation. Released in 2013, it outlines five strategic directions.
  • Forty-five communities across Ontario were selected in 2014 to participate in the Healthy Kids Community Challenge to deliver local programs and activities to support children and youth to be more active and healthy. This is a key part of Ontario's Healthy Kids Strategy, described above. Over a four-year period, communities will receive resources from the province including funding, training, guidance and social marketing tools to help promote healthy eating, physical activity and healthy lifestyle choices for children and youth. PARC currently supports the 45 communities as a member of the Healthy Kids Resource Centres, providing professional learning, consultations and provincial coordination support.
  • In 2014, the Global Summit on the Physical Activity of Children, “The Power to Move Kids”, took place (also in Toronto). Approximately 900 delegates, from 31 countries attended a variety of sessions including the release of the 2014 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on the Physical Activity of Children and Youth and the Global Matrix of Physical Activity, which compared the physical activity levels of children in 15 different countries across five continents. PARC hosted a provincial stakeholder professional development and networking session focused on generating awareness of and engagement in identifying local/regional implementation strategies related to the Report Card findings.
  • Community hubs in Ontario: A strategic framework and action plan was released in 2015 that summarizes what the Premier’s Community Hubs Framework Advisory Group heard when they met with community members, stakeholders and other government ministries to learn how the government can deliver public services through local, community hubs.
  • Game On: The Ontario Government's Sport Plan was led by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport that outlines the action plan for amateur sport in Ontario highlighting the three pillars of participation, development and excellence.
  • The Ontario Sport and Recreation Communities Fund (OSRCF) is an ongoing grant program that was put in place to get and keep Ontarians active in community sport, recreation and physical activity. 


The province of Ontario has benefited from having a relatively large pool of knowledge funds and programs, enabling it to be an early developer of a number of initiatives that benefited Ontarians as well as making a contribution on a national scale (e.g. FOLP). This collective approach, working with the federal government, provinces, territories and the NGO sector continues to shape the way the Ontario government works in the area of physical activity (sport and recreation) promotion.

In part two of this series, we will look at the important role of the NGO (non-government organization) sector and its contribution to physical activity promotion in Ontario.

    1Interview with Dr. Art Salmon and the author’s historical background

    2Interview with Chantal Lalonde and the author’s historical background

    3Edwards, Peggy. ParticipACTION: The Mouse That Roared. A Marketing and Health Communications Success Story (Supplement). Can J Public Health, [S.l.], p. S1-S44, May. 2004. ISSN 1920-7476. Available at: Date accessed: October 30, 2016. doi:


    5The Governor General of Canada. Date accessed: September 6, 2016.

    6Quinney, H. Arthur, Gauvin, L., Wall, A.E. Ted (editors). Toward Active Living. Proceedings of the International Conference on Physical Activity, Fitness and Health. Human kinetics Publishers Inc., 1994.

    7Population and Public Health Division, Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Ontario Public Health Standards 2008 (revised May 2016). Date accessed: October 14, 2016.

    8Basrur, S. 2004 Chief Medical Officer of Health Report. Healthy Weights Healthy Lives. Date accessed: September 6, 2016.