Comment: Vic High track is an asset worth saving

Mens sana in corpore sano — a healthy mind in a healthy body.

It’s the motto of numerous athletic clubs and educational institutions around the world. It’s the theory that physical exercise is an essential part of mental and psychological well-being. As a runner and a physician, I know that it is true and, intuitively, I believe, so do most of you. But let’s be guided by the science.

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I was born in Victoria, grew up in Esquimalt and was introduced to athletics and academic excellence at Esquimalt Junior and Senior High Schools.

However, I would not have become the runner that I became nor the medical doctor that I am, had it not been for that old cinder track at Vic High upon which I competed, and more importantly upon which I trained.

Sixty years ago, it was the only track in town. I was not alone. My training partners came from all the local high schools, even from the university. Some went on to represent Canada in international competition.

Now there are trustees of School District 61 who seem unaware of the long-term impact of trading away the “revitalization” of the Vic High track for a mere eight-metre increase in the “footprint” of the proposed Caledonia housing project adjacent to the school. That very small loss of land will destroy the track, its legacy and all of its future potential. It, like the old-growth forests, will never return.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that affordable housing is essential to the health and social well being of our community, but it should not require the destruction of something of equal or perhaps, as I hope to convince you, of much greater value. Housing projects can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but there is only one shape and size for a standard 400-metre eight-lane running track.

But this is about much more than helping Vic High athletes, perhaps future Canadian international athletes, reach the podium.

It is also about the overwhelming evidence that regular physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, gallstones, osteoporosis, colonic diverticulosis, dementia and 13 different types of cancer, including the most common cancers — lung, colon and breast.

Physical activity helps to relieve stress. It is used to treat anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and even schizophrenia. The bottom line is that people who engage in regular physical activity are healthier, happier and live longer.

And it is not just about the glory of the podium or the health and happiness of old people like myself. What it is really about is giving our youth the very best start in life. There is enormous evidence that physically active youth are not only physically fitter but have better academic performance, improved school attendance, less disruptive classroom behaviour and greater self esteem.

They are less likely to smoke, drink, use drugs or get in trouble with the law. They are twice as likely to remain physically active into adulthood and to reap all the health benefits of an active life.

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And all of this comes with financial rewards. Not just for the student in the future, but also for our society right now. The government of Canada’s public safety research division has recently published a review of sports-based crime prevention programs in Canada and elsewhere in the world. In the U.K. and European programs, the return for every €1 invested is €3.43 to €5.64 in social benefits. That’s better than shares in Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Tesla or even Amazon. We cannot afford to not make this investment in our youth.

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Finally, the Memorial Stadium was built to honour the Vic High students, teachers and staff who died in the Second World War.

I ask, what would they who died for what we now have want? Are their sacrifices no longer worth remembering? What about the sacrifices of all Canadian service men and women, in all arenas of conflict? Should they be remembered too? A “revitalized,” dare I say a “resurrected” Memorial Stadium will do that. I hope that we will never again have to take up arms and that another name will never be added to the roll, but we must not forget.

So I urge the trustees of School District 61, the Capital Region Housing Corporation and the City of Victoria to look at the medical and social science.

Please reconsider. Please ask the architects and developers of the project to tweak the plans. Preserve and revitalize the track. Please do this. Not just for the benefits of physical activity and sport on the physical development of our children, but also for their long-term intellectual, psychological, emotional, social and even moral development.

Stephen Sullivan MD, FRCPC, FRCP (London) is an affiliate associate professor of medicine at the University of Victoria.

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