Health Clubs Are Valuable, Policymakers Need to Make Changes

Some health and fitness clubs in the U.S. have been closed since March. One doctor believes it’s time that policymakers see—once and for all—how important clubs are to overall health.

To counter the misconceptions and negative news—and mark health clubs as essential businesses—IHRSA is meeting with medical experts to get their view on the matter. This article is the second 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 recently spoke with Greg Degnan, M.D., medical director of the Atlantic Coast Athletic Clubs (acac), to get his expert advice on the subject.

The Value of Health Clubs

We’ve said it before, but we’ll repeat it: health and fitness clubs can help the nation get through the pandemic and come out stronger—literally.

“I have always believed physical activity should be part of every healthcare strategy,” says Degnan. “[The fitness industry is] actually part of the healthcare continuum. We’re doing what healthcare has failed to do—we are helping people prevent and treat chronic disease without drugs or surgery.”

As someone who is over the age of 60 and immunocompromised, Degnan has more than his medical background in mind when speaking on the health implications coronavirus can cause and how physical activity can make a difference.

Degnan says some of the diseases that regular exercise can be a beneficial treatment for—or even prevent—include:

“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.” He also says that exercise has shown to be a promising component in coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.

Yet, health clubs—which people visit for self-care and to become healthier overall—are often marked by the government and media as “petri dishes.”

In reality, check-in data compiled from 2,873 clubs across the U.S. and Canada providing 49.4 million member check-ins show an infection rate of just 0.0023%. This means that these clubs reported just 1,155 cases of coronavirus—none of which were contracted at these facilities—in those 49.4 million check-ins.

If health clubs aren’t contributing to the transmission of COVID-19, and strengthen our ability to fight off coronavirus—among other things—what is the real danger during the pandemic? There is data that shows other industries are contributing to the spread much more than any data we have seen that includes fitness facilities.

“The service industry,” says Degnan, “while they may be economic drivers with big lobbies, [they] are, in fact, the ‘petri dish’ industries.”

The service industry Degnan refers to consists of bars, restaurants, resorts, and other similar establishments. Degnan’s comment isn’t out of place. There is a multitude of evidence through contact tracing that shows these businesses contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

“People gather, unmasked, and in close contact at these venues to consume overly large meals and alcohol,” says Degnan. “In short, they gather dangerously in order to engage in activities that contribute to their disease state and risk factors.”

The Role Policymakers Have In Creating a Healthier America

Weight gain, increased alcohol consumption, and declining mental health states have been all too common during the pandemic. Degnan says that these lifestyle choices and the inability to withstand mental health challenges are directly related to the coronavirus pandemic. Those factors include:

  • enforced lack of socialization,
  • changes to the daily norms, and
  • economic pressures.
Dr Degnan Column Width

It’s simple: people need to exercise—now. Until we can contain the spread and a vaccine is widely available, health and fitness clubs can begin to turn this dire situation around. Exercising at a gym can be done safely—and has been in many facilities.

There is no question that people are expiring much more forcefully while exercising,” says Degnan. “[However,] 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.”

It’s not just a medical expert’s opinion. There is plentiful data that shows gyms are a safer environment than most public places.

Degnan believes policymakers need to prioritize physical activity as an essential service for people’s mental and physical health. Specifically, he says, policymakers should:

  1. Inspect each health and fitness club—as the health department inspects restaurants—and close the offenders, rather than closing clubs as a whole.
  2. Pass PHIT to reward those who use resources for healthcare. If passed, the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act will allow Americans to use pre-tax dollars—flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs)—to pay for health club memberships, fitness equipment, exercise videos, and youth sports leagues.
  3. Influence insurance carriers to reimburse health coaching—which trainers can do virtually—because of the positive impact on obesity and lifestyle change. This option is more cost-effective than reimbursing healthcare providers.
  4. Consider legislation that requires insurance carriers to reward healthy behaviors or preventative care—i.e., proof of exercise to receive lower rates or rebates.
  5. Make state or federal funding to medical schools partly dependent on incorporating lifestyle and exercise into their curriculum.

With the many downsides of the pandemic, Degnan says, “I am hopeful that this will help drive a move towards better training for healthcare providers in the areas of exercise and nutrition.”

Exercising Safely At a Health Club

Because of the pandemic, Degnan expects that healthcare providers will see how catastrophic obesity and chronic diseases can be on the individual and healthcare systems as a whole. He believes that coronavirus could be the push in the right direction for providers to prioritize and prescribe physical activity for their patients—especially those who are overweight or suffer from chronic disease.

Dr Degnan Listing Image

Degnan says, “Individuals who are currently at high-risk have the time, and therefore, the potential to positively impact their chronic disease states through regular exercise.”

To his point, there are health clubs that focus on helping these populations—and others—get active with unique programs.

As for safety guidelines and cleaning procedures in the club, Degnan advises:

  • Masks at all times for members and staff,
  • Deep cleaning nightly,
  • Sufficient staff providing cleaning during the day,
  • Wipes readily available throughout the facility for members to clean all equipment after use, and
  • Signage reminding members to wipe down equipment and keep a safe distance (at least six feet) from others.

For those who are high-risk, Degnan recommends, “They should—to the best of their ability—try to work out at off-hours when the facility is less crowded.” Working out at off-hours—or a facility in general—obviously doesn’t work for everyone, but there are plentiful virtual options available to keep high-risk members active.

Above all, everyone needs to weigh how much risk they’re willing to take during the pandemic—as long as it does not put anyone in harm's way.

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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.