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Many Voices: One Message

The 10th annual Summit pushes Congress to promote exercise and healthy lifestyles

As always, the industry’s premier annual lobbying event—the Summit for a Healthier America—attracted a diverse crowd of individuals from throughout the U.S. who possess a wealth of industry experience and actively espouse a variety of healthcare positions. Now in its 10th year, the Summit was held in May at the Top of the Hill Conference Center, in Washington, D.C., and was sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and SPRI Products, Inc.  

It’s precisely this diversity that made the 2012 Summit’s principal “takeaway” all the more compelling, even if a bit unexpected. Despite their different backgrounds and the different ideas they hold, many of the participants concluded that industry unity is the critical key to successfully combating obesity, chronic disease, and sedentary behavior, and to inspiring more Americans to exercise regularly.

“Individually, whatever we can do to improve our nation’s health is great, but together we can make a real difference,” suggested Roberta Kruse- Fordham, the general manager of Sports, Fitness and Fun, in Florida, New York, a first-time attendee and speaker.

She, along with some 50 other fitness industry professionals, took part in an engaging, two-day series of panel discussions and lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. The first day kicked off with an inspiring panel discussion led by Kruse-Fordham and Kevin McHugh, the COO of the Atlantic Club in Manasquan, New Jersey, and a long-time IHRSA member and industry advocate.

Both speakers, who are committed to the cause of promoting healthy lifestyles, explained how health-promotion programs such as IHRSA’s Get Active America!, the Joining Forces Network, and I Lost It at the Club! can strengthen individual clubs, positioning them as key resources for wellness information and services in their communities, while, at the same time, burnishing the industry’s image.

“The panels were extremely informative,” reported Debbie Nogawa, a first-time Summit attendee who, until recently, was the director of membership at the Pacific Athletic Club, in Redwood City, California. “We talked about advocacy, but also shared ideas about club business issues in general.” 

Day One: Education

The attendees were also briefed by Helen Durkin, J.D., IHRSA’s executive vice president of global public policy. Durkin explained what the industry is doing to promote healthy lifestyles at the federal level, and described the government-relations strategy that IHRSA has devised to deal with the harsh realities of the current political and economic climates.

“I understand better than ever before exactly what IHRSA does for our industry,” said Kruse- Fordham. “And I gained a greater appreciation of the work that the people in our industry are doing every day to benefit others.”

Attendees also had a chance to weigh the most accurate and up-to-date data on the state of the nation’s health, which was presented by Tom Richard, IHRSA’s senior legislative counsel. The num- bers he shared are sobering and suggest even more concerted action is required on the industry’s part.

“It’s clear that there are a number of health crises in America that stem from lack of physical activity and other unhealthy behaviors,” remarked Joe Moore, the president and CEO of IHRSA. “Our poor health is jeopardizing our economic prosperity and the quality of life of millions of Americans. Health clubs, with their wealth of health and wellness resources, have what it takes to play a major role in the movement to promote and practice primary prevention. We need to convince Congress of that.”

One way to do so is to encourage members of the medical community to work with the fitness indus- try, educating them about the fact that exercise is, in reality, a form of medicine. That point was brought home by Edward Phillips, M.D., the director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine (ILM) at Harvard University, and the event’s keynote speaker. Phillips explicated the doctor-patient relationship and proposed ways to increase physician-prescribed exercise in his presentation, “What about the Doctors?”

“The existing model of medical care is no longer viable,” he pointed out. “However, the rapidly evolv- ing healthcare landscape provides new opportunities for health clubs to provide critical services in the medical system.” To support his thesis, he cited findings from the ILM Physician’s Survey, supported by IHRSA, which assessed physi- cian attitudes and referral patterns, with respect to exercise and physical activity, among their patients.

The day’s discussion concluded with a town- hall-style panel entitled, “Make the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice,” which featured observations by prominent stakeholders in the fight against chronic disease and inactivity. Among them were Laurie Whitsel, the director of policy research for the American Heart Association (AHA) and president of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA); Bill Sells, the vice president of government relations for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA); and Elizabeth Stower, a legislative aide to Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI), a longtime IHRSA ally.

Later, attendees had the opportunity to relax, socialize, and chat about the coming day’s events, when they’d descend on Capitol Hill to put all that they’d learned to work. The evening’s activities included a cocktail reception in the beautiful marble and glass lobby of the Reserve Officer’s Association, a short distance away from the U.S. Capitol and several Senate offices, and an enter- taining after-dinner speech. Jennifer Duffy, the senior editor of the highly regarded Cook Political Report, offered a humorous insider’s forecast for the upcoming presidential election in November.

“The social aspect of the Summit was phenomenal,” enthuses Nogawa. “I had the opportunity to meet and network with a lot of individuals from across the U.S. I’m now connected with many of them on LinkedIn.”

Day two: In action!

On the second and final day of the Summit, attendees put on their advocate’s hats and, with the guidance of IHRSA staff, took to the Hill to lobby

Congress to pursue policies designed to increase the number of Americans who exercise regularly.

There were many matters to discuss, including a number of legislative proposals endorsed by IHRSA. Among them:

• The Personal Health Investment Today Act (PHIT); the Physical Education Programming Act (PEP); and the Fitness Integrated with Teaching Act (FIT Kids). PHIT would allow individuals to pay for various physical activities, such as a club membership, with pretax dollars from a tax- favored account (e.g., a flexible-spending account). PEP and FIT Kids both provide for quality physical education programs in America’s schools.

• The Workforce Health Improvement Plan Act (WHIP), which would reclassify employer-provided, club membership benefits for offsite facilities as nontaxable income for employees, creating greater worksite wellness opportunities.

• The Physical Activity Guidelines Act, which would mandate a regular 10-year review of the 2008 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines, much like that required for the government’s Dietary Guidelines.

The legislative agenda is long, acknowledges Durkin, but she reminds the industry’s champions that, given the current political gridlock in Washington, “The best strategy is [to] lay the groundwork for legislative support right now, so these initiatives will be well-poised for action once things begin moving again.”

Scott Gillespie, the president of Saco Fitness, in Saco, Maine, and a member of IHRSA’s board of directors, echoed the sentiment. “If we don’t go to Washington, and voice our concerns, and propose our solutions, the issues that we care about could easily be forgotten,” he warns.  

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