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  • Makaila Koshurba

Overcoming Barriers in Physical Activity: Low Income Communities

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

Written By: Makaila Koshurba

Edited by: Naomi Abayomi

The Canadian 24-hour Movement Guidelines suggest that adults over 18 spend at least 150 minutes per week performing moderate to vigorous physical activity, participate in resistance activities twice per week, get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and limit sedentary time to less than 8 hours per day (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, n.d.). Following these guidelines can reduce the risk of mortality and developing various chronic diseases, and can improve quality of life, physical function, and bone health (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, n.d.). It is estimated that 9.5% of children, 18% of adults, and 14% of older adults are meeting these guidelines (Statistics Canada, 2015). There are a multitude of reasons why people living in Canada1 are not achieving these guidelines, but let’s focus on one: low income.

Low-income can greatly impact access to physical activity. In fact, people in the lowest income groups in Canada are 33% less likely to be moderately active than those in the highest income groups (Government of Canada, 2020). A study by Armstrong et al. showed a similar trend in the USA, with higher-income-adolescents being more likely to engage in physical activity than their lower-income counterparts (Armstrong et al., 2018). There are many contributing factors as to why people in low-income households have difficulty accessing physical activity. Here are a few:

  1. Time

It has been shown that time is extremely influential on rates of physical activity (Spinney & Millward, 2010). The less time someone has available, the less likely they are to participate in physical activity. For people in low-income households, they face pressure to make ends meet which can lead to circumstances that leave them with less time for physical activity. Examples include increased time for transportation (i.e., walking or public transit), increased work hours (i.e., two jobs instead of one), or lack of access to childcare (reduced free time), among others.

2. Unsafe Neighbourhoods

Feeling unsafe in the neighbourhood has been shown to prevent low-income women and children from participating in physical activity (Morin, 2016; Matthew, 2000; Basky, 2020). Going outdoors to get free exercise is a luxury that many people take for granted, and for people living in low-income communities, going for a walk in the neighborhood may not be an option.

3. School Facilities A study by Morin et al. (2016) conducted in Quebec showed that low-income schools offer less opportunity for physical activity and sport due to fewer intramural sports being offered, and fewer recreational facilities being available . Children who attend low-income schools will have less opportunity than their higher income counterparts to participate in physical activity.

4. Income

It is no question that low income can prevent access to many of the physical activity facilities available. Gym membership, equipment, and recreation program prices are only some of the costs that individuals have to consider when trying to access physical activity.

There are many other barriers that low-income individuals may face when trying to participate in physical activity, including transportation, baseline mental and physical health, access to healthcare and medication, location, and education (Matthew, 2000; Basky, 2020). It is clear that equitable access to physical activity is a complex issue that entwines itself in economics, policy, infrastructure, society, and culture.

The Canadian Government has begun to tackle this issue and has launched an initiative to increase physical activity in Canada. This initiative is called “Let’s Get Moving” and it makes recommendations to governments, organizations, communities, and leaders for increasing accessibility to physical activity for low-income communities and other populations Government of Canada, 2020). These recommendations are organized into 6 areas of focus:

  1. Cultural norms: establishing movement as a social norm

  2. Spaces and places: creating environments that support physical activity

  3. Public engagement: increasing education and tools to engage Canadians in physical activity

  4. Partnerships: engaging various sectors to work together to promote physical activity

  5. Leadership and learning: building knowledge of benefits of exercise beyond the physical activity sector

  6. Progress: monitoring and reporting how physical activity trends change over time If organizations and governments act on these recommendations, there is a possibility that low-income individuals will have additional opportunities to engage in physical activity. However, there are many changes that need to be made and equitable access to physical activity still seems far out of reach.

No to Low-Cost Resources for Physical Activity

Many municipalities offer fee subsidies for recreation programs for low-income families (Try Googling: recreation fee assistance [your town]). Here’s an example.

Here are some free ways to add more movement into your daily routine (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 2013):

  • Park your car in the far parking spots when running errands

  • Get off one bus stop early

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator

Here are some online resources that are available to help people get moving for free:


  • People living in low-income households report the lowest levels for physical activity among Canadians

  • Barriers to physical activity among low-income populations include:

    • Unsafe neighborhoods

    • Time

    • Transportation

    • Facilities and intramurals in schools

    • Expenses for memberships, recreation programs, equipment, etc.

  • The Canadian Government has launched an initiative to increase physical activity in Canada called Let’s Get Moving, with recommendations on how to increase accessibility to physical activity

  • Many municipalities offer fee subsidies for recreation programs for low-income families

  • There are several ways to increase physical activity in your daily life including:

    • Park your car in the far parking spots when running errands

    • Get off one bus stop early

    • Take the stairs instead of the elevator

  • Free online fitness resources:


  1. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. 24-Hour Movement Guidelines.

  2. Statistics Canada. Canadian Health Measures Survey. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. 2014-2015. Web.

  3. Government of Canada. A Common Vision for increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary living in Canada: Let’s Get Moving. 2020.

  4. Armstrong S, Wong CA, Perrin E, Page S, Sibley L, Skinner A. Association of Physical Activity With Income, Race/Ethnicity, and Sex Among Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States: Findings From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2007-2016. JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172(8):732–740. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.1273

  5. Spinney, J., & Millward, H. (2010). Time and Money: A New Look at Poverty and the Barriers to Physical Activity in Canada. Social Indicators Research, 99(2), 341–356.

  6. Morin P, Lebel A, Robitaille É, Bisset S. Socioeconomic Factors Influence Physical Activity and Sport in Quebec Schools. J Sch Health. 2016 Nov;86(11):841-851. doi: 10.1111/josh.12438. PMID: 27714872

  7. Mathew, R. Invisible Women: Understanding the Barriers to Physical Activity for Low Income, Older Adult Women. National Library of Canada. 2000.

  8. Basky, G. Fitness advice ignores realities of life on the margins. 2020, Jan 10. CMAJ News.

  9. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Tips for Getting Active. 2013.

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Ahmad Almasri
Ahmad Almasri

It's disheartening to see the stark disparities in physical activity levels among Canadians, particularly those living in low-income households. This article sheds light on the multifaceted barriers that hinder access to physical activity for individuals facing financial constraints.

From limited time due to increased work hours to safety concerns in neighborhoods, it's evident that systemic factors play a significant role in perpetuating inequities in physical activity participation. Additionally, the financial burden associated with gym memberships and recreation programs further exacerbates the issue, making it challenging for low-income individuals to prioritize their health and well-being.

However, amidst these challenges, initiatives like "Let's Get Moving" offer a glimmer of hope. By addressing cultural norms, creating supportive environments, and fostering partnerships across sectors,…

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