Calls for people with gym or yoga memberships to get tax rebates

One woman said: ‘My cardiologist said to me the difference between me and my dad is that I’m still physically fit.’

A healthy lifestyle can help prevent many cases of stroke
A healthy lifestyle can help prevent many cases of stroke (Alamy Stock Photo)

The Dublin government has been urged to give tax breaks to those who try to be physically active, to encourage people to stay healthy.

A new lobby group, the Fit 4 Life – Irish Physical Activity Alliance, or IPAA, wants people with gym memberships or who attend yoga classes to be able to claim tax back on those amounts under health expenses.

The IPAA has emphasised the importance of exercise in ensuring people stay independent and health as they get older.

The proposed tax relief under the Med 1 form for health expenses would be aimed at anyone who has paid for a class or membership for any dedicated facility for improving physical activity.

IPAA chairwoman Dr Darina Dunne said she began the lobbying campaign for very personal reasons.

“I have chronic heart disease – I only discovered it quite recently. It’s the same disease that killed my dad when he was 49,” she said on Tuesday.

“You probably look at me and think I’m as healthy as a horse. But if I hadn’t started an intervention, I’d probably be dead now. When I went to my cardiologist, he said to me the difference between me and my dad is that I’m still physically fit.

“So I’ve had 30 years without my dad. He wasn’t at my graduation; when I bought my first car, which doesn’t seem important, but it was the first car in our house; my wedding – the really significant things he’s missed out on and it’s completely preventable.

“So I’m lucky that I know that, I’m getting the exercise, but I just want other people to know that… there’s something that could be done about it.”

Phil Brown, 64, is an ovarian cancer survivor who took up weightlifting in 2018 after her treatment ended.

“I’ve represented Ireland four times in European masters. I have bronze and silver medals, and I absolutely love it,” she said.

“I was just coming back from looking after my 93-year-old mum, who’s in Tipperary, who has broken both her hips. She can’t walk anymore.

“One of the things I have to do for my mum is take down bags of fuel for her, and they’re 40 kilo bags and I have to lift them from the wheelbarrow into the fuel bin, and I can do that on my own.

“She’s so feeble and so frail now, it really drives me on to stay really, really strong. I’m in better shape now than I was when I was in my 30s, I’d say – I’m fitter, I have a better structure, a better muscle tone, and I just love it.”

She added: “I think it’s a really important government policy because they’re always on about obesity and about the pressures of the health service, and this will be one way to get people moving.”

Dr Dunne said tax rebates are effective and that gym owners say people cancel gym membership because they “see it as a discretionary spend”.

But she also said that implementing a tax break without an information campaign on the benefit of physical exercise is “pointless”.

“This isn’t about getting a tax break, this is about getting people more physically active. So we’re saying to government: implement a tax incentive to reframe physical activity in the mindset of the public and work with us to educate the public to know the true benefits of physical activity.”

Dr Dunne said that, as an analytical chemist, she was shocked to read statistics on the bone density of women in Ireland and that the main reason people are in nursing homes is loss of muscle mass, which she said is “completely preventable”.

She said Ireland has the worst levels of osteoporosis in Europe, and cited a “frightening” statistic that 50% of women over 65 in Ireland will break a hip, and 30% of that cohort will die within three years.

“I hear people saying ‘I must do exercise’, but I don’t think they actually know the real impact that it has.

“The smoking ban was one of the best health policies ever, and I think people would have said ‘People know cigarettes are bad’, but they still smoked. It was only when we started to put it in front of them and said ‘It’s really bad – look at these images, we’re banning it, government is taking action’ that we have that shift – we need that here.”