Gyms Gain Strength in Medical Voices

Medical and health experts nationwide agree that health clubs and gyms are crucial to overall health and safe to visit amid a pandemic when proper safety guidelines are in place.

A place in the public health and healthcare communities has long been overdue for the fitness industry—and experts agree.

“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,” said Russell Pate, Ph.D., professor of exercise science and director of the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group at the University of South Carolina.

IHRSA has been collating and sharing expert opinions from medical, science, and public health professionals to amplify their voices. The goal is to align the fitness industry with experts and prove to the public that exercising in a health club can be safely done during a pandemic and spread the immense benefits of leading physically active lifestyles.

The Chicago Medical Society (CMS) supported the cause.

Critical Input Comes From the Chicago Medical Society

At the end of 2020, the CMS sent a letter to the governor of Illinois, mayor of Chicago, and president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners asking that gyms remain open and open their doors early enough for medical professionals to participate in a fitness regimen.

Overall, the letter calls for health and fitness clubs that are strictly adhering to public health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to remain open. The CMS’s main arguments are:

  1. Gyms offer innumerable benefits to both physical and mental health and
  2. Data demonstrates that health clubs adhering to guidelines are safe environments

The CMS’s stance on the issue of health and fitness club safety is straightforward. In the letter, CMS said, “Be assured that many of [our healthcare professionals], as this pandemic wages on, have relied heavily on access to their own health and fitness facilities to help strengthen their immunity and for the maintenance of good mental health...Our physicians and licensed healthcare professionals would not enter an environment that they felt was unsafe and we feel that it is critical to allow them the opportunity to get back into a regular fitness routine.”

The coronavirus is a public health crisis, so medical voices are integral when discussing necessary guidelines and regulations to keep the public safe. The CMS’s letter was a key factor for lawmakers to change the existing COVID-19 guidelines and allow clubs that are operating safely to remain open.

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The CMS’s perspective directly aligns with the thoughts and opinions of other professionals. Of the medical, science, and public health experts IHRSA interviewed, they all agreed that it’s essential for health and fitness clubs to remain open—following strict cleaning and safety protocols.

“It’s reasonable to allow those clubs to open because of the tremendous physical benefit of exercise,” said Tyler Cooper, M.D., MPH, president and CEO of Cooper Aerobics in Dallas, TX.

Greg Degnan, M.D., medical director of the Atlantic Coast Athletic Clubs (acac), added, “If a club is spacing appropriately, keeping the occupancy to an appropriate level, providing and enforcing the use of wipes, and requiring masks, it is, in my mind, safer than most of the public places I currently frequent.”

Expert Reason for Keeping Clubs Open

Medical and health professionals understand that people must stay physically active to maintain and promote good health. IHRSA created a medical endorsement letter, in which health professionals sign on to affirm "[health] clubs provide a place for our patients to work on their physical and mental health and experience much-needed socialization in a safe, controlled environment.”

“On the mental health side,” says Degnan, “there is an equal abundance of literature supporting the benefit of regular exercise in the management of depression, anxiety, and even cognitive decline.”

The CMS stated their physicians need—and should be warranted—access to “a positive regimen of fitness, exercise, relaxation, nutritional counseling, and personal training.”

Robert Sallis, M.D., director of The Sports Medicine Fellowship Program at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, CA, entirely agrees with how important it is to keep health clubs open.

“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,” said Sallis.

Lori Deemer, M.D., medical director of Hancock Wellness Centers in Hancock County, IN, notes the consequences of sedentary and isolated lifestyles. “This translates to less movement, and even just within a few months, a significant increase in debility and decline in overall health,” said Deemer.

“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,” said Pate.

Cooper urges, “Policymakers in all situations should be encouraging physical activity in safe environments as it will be beneficial and helpful in [the] prevention of disease … Being physically fit, even at moderate levels, improves [the] quality and quantity of life.”

To keep the public physically active and provide a safe environment, IHRSA formed the Medical, Science, and Health Advisory Council. The Council also serves as an avenue for IHRSA to communicate expert opinions to the global population on why exercise is essential for overall health and wellness. The Council’s formation is another step in forging a mutual understanding and collaboration between the fitness industry and its healthcare role.

The Medical, Science, and Health Advisory Council Mission

The Medical, Science, and Health Advisory Council is made up of experts in the fields of medicine, public health, exercise science, exercise physiology, medical fitness, fitness, nutrition, and behavior change.

The Council advises IHRSA’s Executive Staff and Board of Directors on current research and science that advances the health & fitness industry and protects public safety while improving population health and individual health risks by:

  1. Identifying ways to measure the impact of exercise and lifestyle change as a driving force to improve population health, individual health, and post medical treatment outcomes.
  2. Providing technical information on current science and research on the health benefits of physical activity.
  3. Identifying strategies that create synergies between medical science, healthcare delivery, and preventive lifestyle measures.
  4. Guiding and evaluating the development and delivery of education and resources for the industry.
  5. Serving as industry ambassadors to publicly promote the safety and efficacy of health through proper exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits.

Related Articles & Publications

  • 5 Considerations for Rolling Back Your Gym’s COVID Protocols

  • Physical Inactivity & the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • New WHO Guidelines Emphasize Vital Role of Physical Activity

Author avatar

Sami Smith

Sami Smith is IHRSA's Senior Manager of Digital Communications, working to shape the organization's image on various digital platforms. On a typical day, she creates content, delivers impactful communications, and executes targeted marketing efforts to keep IHRSA at the forefront of the industry. Outside of the office, you can find her exploring new destinations, indulging in food, or participating in just about any sport.