Doctor Says Gyms Can Help Prevent COVID-19 & Lessen Its Impact

Robert Sallis, M.D., says, “Whatever it takes to get places where people can exercise and be active to open, we have to do it, it's an essential part of life.”

Health is of the utmost importance to the health and fitness industry. Throughout the pandemic, the focus of the industry has been to provide people with ways to safely be active while clubs were shut down. Then, the focus shifted to the institution of stringent safeguards to minimize risk to reopen and stay open. Yet despite these efforts, the media and sometimes public officials have incorrectly labeled the industry as unsafe.

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 first 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 recently spoke with Robert Sallis, M.D., to get his expert advice on the subject.

Exercise Is Essential

Physical activity is a key measure for prevention, management, and treatment of chronic health conditions. It also promotes long-term health and longevity. Approximately 20% of Americans exercise in one of the nation’s 40,000 health and fitness clubs.

“COVID-19 has vividly exposed our unhealthy lifestyles...You go through the list of risks for dying or being severely ill from COVID-19 and you mostly find the diseases of inactivity.”

Robert Sallis, M.D., Director of The Sports Medicine Fellowship Program

Kaiser Permanente - Fontana, CA

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only half of adults get the exercise they need.

“I believe, as a lot do, that physical inactivity is the major public health problem of our time,” says Sallis.

Sallis is director of The Sports Medicine Fellowship Program at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, CA, a clinical professor of family medicine at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine, and chair of the Exercise is Medicine Advisory Board. It shouldn’t be surprising that exercise is the first medicine that Sallis prescribes to his patients—still!

“I feel, as a longtime practicing family medicine physician, that [physical activity is] absolutely the most important medicine I can prescribe to my patients,” he says.

We think so, too—the writing is on the walls. Physical activity can:

  • reduce the chances of developing chronic diseases,
  • lessen the risk of contracting non-communicable or communicable diseases (like coronavirus), and
  • improve immune health.

Not to mention, all the other amazing mental, emotional, and overall health benefits of exercise.

COVID-19 Disproportionately Harms Those with Chronic Disease

“COVID-19 has vividly exposed our unhealthy lifestyles,” says Sallis. “And it really is people who follow unhealthy lifestyles who are most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19...You go through the list of risks for dying or being severely ill from COVID-19 and you mostly find the diseases of inactivity.”

Referring to the CDC, inactivity greatly impacts pre-existing diseases that also increase the risk of severe COVID-19. These diseases include:

  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease),
  • obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher),
  • type 2 diabetes mellitus,
  • heart disease,
  • cancer, and
  • chronic kidney disease.

The pandemic has drastically decreased the level of activity among U.S. adults and children. An Evidation survey with more than 185,000 participants reports that between March 1 and April 8, activity levels declined by 48% among adults.

“Whatever it takes to get places where people can exercise and be active to open, we have to do it. It's an essential part of life.”

Robert Sallis, M.D., Co-director of Sports Medicine Fellowship Program

Kaiser Permanente - Fontana, CA

It’s disheartening—to say the least—that so many people miss the value of exercise. “We're all sitting in our houses huddled, waiting for a vaccine for COVID-19 instead of going out and trying to improve our health by being active, eating right, and not smoking, when we know that's the best vaccine we have right now,” says Sallis.

How do we fix the issue of inactivity during a pandemic?

“We need to get people to take charge of their health. That is the best protection they have against COVID-19,” says Sallis. “This virus is going to be here for a while, we need to figure out how to start living with it, or we're going to all die related to the avoidance of it.”

Swapping the Narrative: Gyms Are Safe

Lawmakers are incorrectly labeling health and fitness clubs, pools, hiking trails, etc., as high-risk places to visit during the pandemic. Even with increased cleaning protocols and safety guidelines as well as data and research proving that fitness facilities are not spreading COVID-19, some lawmakers simply will not change their decision. To this point, Sallis says, “They're not listening to the evidence.”

He added, “We're allowing people to go on airplanes, we're allowing people to go into Costco, we're allowing them to go into their doctor's offices, [and] we're taking precautions with [all these businesses]. Why can't we do the same for gyms and other venues where we can be active, which I consider to be really essential to many people?”

Health clubs have been putting in the work to make their facilities more safe—and cleaner—for members, staff, and the community. It’s truly up to the collective fitness industry to get the message out that these facilities are:

  • safe and clean,
  • able to help with contact tracing, and
  • essential to overall health and fighting off the virus.

“Prevention and treatment [are] just essential...the major risk factors for serious COVID-19 infections are all improved by doing regular exercise,” says Sallis.

MXM check-in data proves just how safe and valuable clubs are. As of August 7, the data, compiled from 2,877 health and fitness locations with over 49 million member check-ins, shows an occurrence rate of just 0.002% or a 42,731:1 visit-to-virus ratio. Out of the 49 million check-ins, only 1,155 people have entered these locations and tested positive for coronavirus.

Sallis says, "The vast majority of people who died from COVID-19 have at least one chronic disease, diseases that are related to physical inactivity. So, why would we not consider gyms and other venues where we can be physically active as essential to help prevent cases and lessen the impact of them? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

If you’re contemplating visiting a gym, Sallis advises the following:

  • Keep six feet or more of space between others when exercising outdoors.
  • Wear a mask and distance yourself when in the weight room or resistance training.
  • Wipe down all equipment after use.
  • Weigh your own risk.

“It's a mistake to discount the importance of a gym to some people's health,” he says. “Those who are most at-risk of utilizing [gyms] have the most to gain from it...Whatever it takes to get places where people exercise and can be active to open, we have to do it. It's an essential part of life.”

For information on how health clubs can operate more efficiently during and after a pandemic, check out IHRSA’s Key Considerations and Risk Assessments Tools.

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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.