A Healthy Nation Needs Exercise & Quality Healthcare

America was unhealthy before the pandemic, now it’s out of control. One expert hopes to see healthcare reform by promoting physical activity in the future.

To counter the misconceptions and negative news—and mark health clubs as essential businesses—IHRSA is meeting with medical and health policy experts to get their view on the matter. This article is the fourth installment in a series in which we will share expert opinions from medical, science, and public health professionals focusing on:

  • exercising safely in clubs during a pandemic,
  • how gyms play a significant role in keeping people healthy, and
  • the overall health benefits of exercise.

We spoke with Russell Pate, Ph.D., professor of exercise science and director of the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group at the University of South Carolina and coordinator of the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan, to hear his perspective.

Physical Activity Can Help Prevent Avoidable Deaths

With the coronavirus pandemic causing a rift in daily life and the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) release of the 2019 Adult Obesity Prevalence Maps, it is more critical than ever to help the nation adopt healthier lifestyles.

“It has long been well-recognized that higher levels of habitual physical activity are associated with reduced risk for developing multiple non-communicable diseases…[and] these diseases represent the major causes of death in our society,” says Pate.

In the U.S., non-communicable diseases account for seven of the 10 leading causes of death. And, as reported from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD), in 2017, 2,533,697 Americans died from factors related to non-communicable diseases—that equals 88.7% of all deaths reported in that same year.

Pate says, “Unfortunately, most Americans do not meet [the] current recommendations for physical activity, and low physical activity is responsible for more premature deaths than any condition aside from tobacco use.”

Dr Pate Article Column Width Listing Image

Only 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 high school students meet the physical activity requirements for aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening. Inactivity is directly related to obesity. Currently, the adult obesity rate in the U.S. is 42.4%—the highest it has ever been. Not only is the obesity rate out of control, but according to the CDC’s report, it costs the U.S. healthcare system $147 billion a year. If Americans increase activity levels, reduce smoking and obesity rates, and improve treatment rates, it could save $116 billion yearly.

Pate says, “Over the last 25 years, physical activity has gradually gained a foothold in our nation’s public health system, but it has not been given nearly the priority that vast amounts of scientific evidence indicate it should.”

Chronic Disease, Mental Health, & Exercise

Routine care is essential for those with chronic diseases. A global survey of 202 healthcare professionals shows a reduction in access to care—significantly impacting those with diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and hypertension—due to the allocation of most resources to focus on COVID-19.

“Because we have not invested adequately in [the] prevention of chronic diseases, we have huge numbers of Americans who are vulnerable to COVID-19 because their immune function is eroded by underlying health conditions,” says Pate.

“The pandemic has made [it] clear that America’s failure to invest in public health has produced a catastrophe.”

Russell Pate, Ph.D., Professor of Exercise Science and Director of the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group

University of South Carolina - Columbia, SC

The number is huge—6 in 10 adults in the U.S. have a chronic disease with 4 in 10 having two or more. That means 60% of adults are at an increased risk of hospitalization with severe coronavirus solely because of chronic disease.

“The pandemic has highlighted the important immediate and short-term beneficial effects of physical activity,” says Pate.

In reference to one study, anxiety and depressive disorders impact psychomotor functioning (gross and fine motor activity), speech characteristics, and motor speed. Those suffering from anxiety or depression tend to be more sedentary and do less intense physical activity.

Pate says, “A rapidly growing body of research is showing that being physically active provides important psychological and mental health benefits.” According to him, those benefits include:

In the same global survey regarding access to proper care for those with chronic disease, 80% of respondents said their patients’ mental health has suffered during the pandemic.

Whether it be outdoors, at a health club, or participating in sports, exercise can be extremely beneficial to those with chronic disease and mental health disorders.

If choosing to exercise indoors at a health club, Pate indicates that the risk level of working out at a gym is dependent on the enforcement of risk mitigation among staff and members.

“With proper adherence to safety protocols, particularly including mask-wearing and social distancing, the risk of going to a health club can be substantially reduced,” says Pate.

The Future of Public Health

“The pandemic has made [it] clear that America’s failure to invest in public health has produced a catastrophe,” Pate says.

With over 7 million cases—and counting—of coronavirus in the U.S. and more than 200,000 deaths, it’s hard to disagree.

Compared to other high-income countries that prioritize healthcare—such as Canada, Australia, or Germany—the U.S. infections are astronomical. Out of these countries, the U.S. has the highest obesity rate.

Pate says, “In the aftermath of the pandemic, it is hoped that policymakers will see the error of their way and build the public health infrastructure that our nation deserves.”


He believes one of the highest priorities should be building upon physical activity and promoting it to the public. This is an area where IHRSA and health and fitness clubs can be part of the solution.

Related Articles & Publications

Author avatar

Sami Smith

Sami Smith is IHRSA's Communications and Public Relations Assistant. On a typical day, she delivers communications and creates content for IHRSA's advocacy efforts, while working to shape IHRSA and the fitness industry's public image on multiple platforms. Outside of the office, you can find her traveling to new areas, indulging in food, or participating in just about any sport.