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Fitness protest on Ontario legislature lawn fails to move McGuinty on HST

TORONTO - Worked-up fitness enthusiasts exercising in protest of the harmonized sales tax aren't finding a training partner in Premier Dalton McGuinty.

TORONTO - Worked-up fitness enthusiasts exercising in protest of the harmonized sales tax aren't finding a training partner in Premier Dalton McGuinty.

They sweat, stepped, shadowboxed and lunged in front of the legislature, but McGuinty refused to budge on applying the HST to gym memberships, after-school sports and bicycles.

"There are all kinds of things that you'd like to be able to exempt, but at some point in time, you've got to worry about your bottom line — especially when you're running a $21.3-billion deficit," the premier said.

About 70 demonstrators took part in the group workout on the front lawn to protest the HST, some carrying signs with the slogans "It's cheaper to be fat in Ontario" and "Stop the fitness tax" as they bobbed along to the fist-pumping dance beat.

The governing Liberals are leaving the HST off doughnuts, coffee and fast-food meals under $4, but the tools for a healthy lifestyle will be eight per cent more expensive starting July 1, said Jennifer Chong, 43.

"If they're going to exempt fast food under $4, what type of message is that creating for the people out there?" said Chong, a Toronto fitness club owner.

"'Yeah, go ahead, eat food that's probably not very good for you. But we don't really want you to work out.' Not the best message."

Ultimately, fitness clubs will benefit from the shift to a harmonized tax, even though the cost of a membership will go up, McGuinty said.

The HST will create jobs and clubs will get tax credits when they buy new equipment, he said.

"I think all those folks who work at those fitness centres also want to make sure that people have jobs, because when we have jobs, then we have disposable incomes so that we can take advantage of these fitness centres," McGuinty said.

But keeping costs down for sports and gym memberships will save the province a lot of money, fitness enthusiasts argue. It means fewer trips to hospital and sick days at work.

"Taxing fitness goes against common sense," said Andy Soumbos, who owns 14 Curves fitness clubs in Ontario.

"Obesity rates in Canada are rising ... it's safe to say that health-care costs will continue to rise right along with them."

The HST will prevent more people in Ontario and British Columbia — which is also moving to a harmonized tax July 1 — from leading an active life, said Brian Gilbank, executive director of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada.

"Memberships and being active (are) already expensive," he said. "We don't need extra barriers to being fit."

Families are already struggling to make ends meet without having to pay extra for hockey games, dance class — even vitamins, said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.

"We hear it at Queen's Park that Dalton McGuinty, out of one side of his mouth, says he wants to encourage physical activity," he told the cheering crowd.

"He wants to do so for our youth, he wants to do so for our adults. But at the same time, they're going to make it more expensive for men, women and children of all ages to live active lifestyles."

For all his talk about improving the health of Ontario residents, McGuinty is hiking the cost of an active lifestyle, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Even the cost of a nicotine patch is going up under the HST, Horwath said.

"How wrong-headed is that?" she asked.

"Cheap fast food that makes you fat is tax exempt, and yet the kinds of things that we need people to engage in — like fitness activities, like smoking cessation programs — are being taxed at eight per cent."