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Fitness Is Essential: Supporting Clubs and Members

Fitness is more critical now than ever. Here’s how the message supports the industry and clubs support the message.

Karlie Intlekofer, Ph.D., global wellness researcher for Matrix, contributed to this article.

American health clubs and studios served almost 65 million members prior to the coronavirus outbreak. The restrictions on gyms and fitness facilities have impacted fitness levels and are adding to our rising burden of obesity,(1) type 2 diabetes(1) and heart disease.(1) Less appreciated is how dropping fitness levels also fuel the prevalence of osteoporosis,(2) frailty,(3) and cancer.(4) Together, these conditions are among the top disabling and costly health issues that threaten our quality of life, and they all share a common risk factor: a sedentary lifestyle.

The Key Message: Clubs Directly Impact Health

Gym visits are also one of the healthiest ways we maintain our bodies, but also our mental health. Access to fitness facilities is crucial to combat the rise of anxiety, depression and stress brought on by this crisis. Indeed, the COVID era has been characterized by sharp declines in life satisfaction. For instance, 54% of individuals rated the psychological impact of COVID-19 as moderate to severe,(5) due to worries about personal safety, the health of loved ones, and economic hardship. Stress-related mood disorders have emerged as a major public health crisis, for which the WHO recommends physical activity as an effective stress coping mechanism.(6)

Regular exercise has important benefits that are especially relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical activity can stem the rising tide of anxiety and depression(7) because as we improve our fitness, we improve our mental resilience.(8,9) By raising confidence and self-efficacy,(10) regular exercise induces positive mood states while alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression.(11-13)

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A higher emphasis on regular exercise is a crucial step for protecting our mental health and for bolstering our immune system function. Protecting mental health is also important because having a more positive mood predicts better antibody responses to vaccination,(14) and chronic psychological stress is consistently associated with poorer vaccine responses.(15-17) The effect of chronic stress on dampening immune responses to vaccines is even observed in healthy young adults,(18) underscoring the importance of exercise promotion for all ages.

Both advanced age and a sedentary lifestyle reduce our antibody responses to viruses and vaccines. For instance, those over 85 years of age are 16 times more likely to die of flu-related illness and 32 times more likely to die of flu-related pneumonia than those between the ages 65 and 69.(19) Many studies support that regular exercise improves immune function and increases our antibody responses to vaccination.(20-22) Some of the age-associated losses of immune function are restored by cardiovascular exercise(23) and resistance training.(24)

Taken together, these findings suggest that we must support fitness facilities and gyms as part of our optimal recovery strategy from COVID-19 shut-downs.

Clubs Support the Message

The message about the essential need for fitness is unambiguous, and clubs are clearly supporting it.

Among the organizations amplifying this call to action is the California Fitness Alliance (CFA), which is composed of 345 partner organizations that represent more than 3,000 fitness centers.

“Our partners and brands employ tens of thousands of Californians and provide an outlet for physical and mental health for millions each year,” notes CFA co-founder and board member Francesca Schuler, CEO of Central Valley California-based In-Shape Health Clubs, which operates 44 clubs and serves hundreds of thousands of members in the state. “Our mission is to promote a healthy and fit California and advocate for reopening. For the past 14 months, we’ve been extremely focused on educating our collective California community around the importance of exercise for both physical and mental health.

“To that end,” she continues, “We’ve been collecting continually updated information on the importance of fitness for physical and mental health—especially as it relates to COVID-19—and sharing that across the board with leadership at the state, county, city, and public health levels. We want to help those officials go beyond the headlines we all read to understand the depth of the issue.”

Titled Fitness Safety Facts, the CFA monthly newsletter updates data on safety, the industry, fitness, and readiness for reopening. The organization also drives consumer education, such as public service messaging around COVID-19 and exercising responsibly, across a robust social platform, including Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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Sending the Message to Members

Members understand the importance of their own dedication to fitness, but Schuler says that the industry still needs to be mindful about the way it shapes the message it sends.

“As members seek to come back, clubs need to consider how they’re supporting them, the message their programming sends, and the positions their members are in,” she says. “During the height of the pandemic, we did a lot of outreach and online programming at In-Shape. We called our senior members and reminded them to take walks and stay healthy. We also offered what we called ‘moments of mindfulness,’ which were mini meditations. We did a lot of kids’ programming because we knew parents were home and wanted to offer ways for them to work out together. It’s unrealistic to think that you can just leave the kids alone while you work out, so we tried to make it easier for both.”

Going forward, In-Shape’s approach takes into account members’ need to sensibly and gradually ramp back up to previous fitness levels. Its current campaign, Get Moving 2021, is focused on supporting members optimally, especially given their diverse fitness goals.

“We don’t assume that members need to be Spartan Runners or Iron Man competitors to be successful,” relates Schuler. “If you love to dance and that’s how you're going to move, bring it on. The goal of every message we communicate is to help members find out how they love to move and reinforcing that, not trying to reach an ideal.”

The overall goal, she says, is to make fitness approachable. For example, In-Shape launched a new program in March called the Best Less Workouts.

“We have workouts that are burpee-less, jump-less and plank-less amongst others,” she explains. “We’ve removed the things people may not like out of the boot camp experience to make the workout less painful—whether that’s physically or mentally—and easier to work into. We’re simply looking for ways to invite people in and make the experience of re-entry and getting back into fitness easier.”

Fitness Matters to Members

Fortunately, many members are highly dedicated to their exercise habits.

“The people that are coming in now are serious about their fitness,” says Dave Dossantos, CEO of Best Fitness, which operates nine clubs and boutique studios serving 47,000 members in the Nashua, New Hampshire area. “As far as our personal training goes, we’re already back to pre-pandemic numbers, which is a real indicator of what members want and need.”

In that case, he says, the in-club message is as important as any that Best Fitness might send.

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“We want members coming back to be comfortable and know they’re in a safe environment,” he says. “We’ve probably had to ask about 1,000 members to leave throughout our chain just because they weren’t following the rules. People have different political views, but it’s not my job to agree or disagree. It’s my job to try to make everybody feel as comfortable as they can. If 70% of the members feel safe and 30% don’t, I’m not going to shoo that 30% away.”

“If I could highlight one goal for the fitness category, it would be to be the industry that invites all people to get moving,” concludes Schuler. “We know that fitness matters and we as a collective whole need to be intentional about showing people simply being healthy and enjoying fitness in our clubs and in the everyday things they do. It doesn’t have to be, and it shouldn’t be, intimidating.”

To learn more about Matrix Fitness, visit their website.


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6. Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak. March 2020; https://apps.who.int/iris/bits...

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11. Berger & Motl. Exercise and mood: A selective review and synthesis of research employing the profile of mood states. J of Applied Sports Psychology 2000; 12(1): 69-92.

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13.Hearing et al. Physical exercise for treatment of mood disorders: A critical review. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports 2016; 3: 350-8.

14. Ayling et al. Positive mood on the day of influenza vaccination predicts vaccine effectiveness: a prospective observational cohort study. Brain Behav Immun 2018; 67: 314–323.Jackson & Dishman RK. Cardiorespiratory fitness and laboratory stress: a meta-regression analysis. Psychophysiology 2006; 43 (1): 57–72.

15.Kiecolt. Kiecolt-Glaser et al. Chronic stress alters the immune response to influenza virus vaccine in older adults. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 1996. 93: 3043–3047.

16. Kiecolt. Segerstrom et al. Caregiving, repetitive thought, and immune response to vaccination in older adults. Brain Behav Immun 2008; 22: 744–752.

17. Kiecolt. Glaser et al. Chronic stress modulates the immune response to a pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine. Psychosom Med 2000; 62: 804–807.

18. Burns et al. Life events, perceived stress and antibody response to influenza vaccination in young, healthy adults. J Psychosom Res 2003; 55: 569–572.

19. Thompson et al. Influenza-associated hospitalizations in the United States. JAMA 2004;292(11):1333-40. doi:10.1001/jama.292.11.1333.

20. Kohut. Exercise and psychosocial factors modulate immunity to influenza vaccine in elderly individuals. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2002; 57: M557–M562.

21. Fahlman et al. Effects of endurance training on selected parameters of immune function in elderly women. Gerontology 2000; 46: 97–104.

22. Yan et al. Effect of moderate exercise on immune senescence in men. Eur J Appl Physiol 2001; 86: 105–111.

23. Woods et al. Effects of 6 months of moderate aerobic exercise training on immune function in the elderly. Mech Ageing Dev 1999; 109: 1–19.

24. McFarlin et al. Chronic resistance exercise training improves natural killer cell activity in older women. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2005; 60: 1315–1318.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to IHRSA.org.