Medical Experts: Let Gyms Keep Serving Their Communities

    Health professionals who sign the “Medical Endorsement of Exercise & Lifestyle Medicine” letter 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.”

    Decisions about COVID-19 must be based on facts and evidence. Research and data are increasingly demonstrating both the safety and importance of the health club industry. To amplify medical and science-based experts' voices, IHRSA is gathering a diverse group of medical and health professionals who believe in both the importance of exercise and the vital and safe role health and fitness clubs play with proper risk mitigation steps.

    IHRSA has compiled and summarized the evidence into the “Medical Endorsement of Exercise & Lifestyle Medicine” letter. Members of IHRSA’s Medical Headlight Team, the Medical Fitness Association and others have begun to reach out to MDs and PhDs in allied health professionals to sign the letter and lend their support to “encourag[ing] public health and government officials to allow health and fitness clubs adhering to rigorous safety protocols to remain open and continue serving the public.”

    3 Key Points Made in the ‘Medical Endorsement of Exercise and Lifestyle Management’ Letter

    1. The U.S. was in the midst of an existing chronic disease epidemic before COVID-19.

    Six in 10 Americans have at least one chronic disease, and four in 10 have two or more. Evidence shows physical activity is beneficial for the prevention, treatment, and management of a number of chronic health conditions including heart disease and diabetes. The letter notes that “it is even more so now, as many physical inactivity-related comorbidities are risk factors for developing severe COVID-19 illness.”

    2. COVID-19 restrictions have severely impacted mental health, especially among healthcare workers.

    Depression rates are on the rise, and more people, especially young adults, are reporting thoughts of suicide. Rates of drug use and overdose have gone up during the pandemic. Among healthcare workers, reports of heightened levels of burnout, stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety are increasing. “At this moment, we cannot take away one of the most effective and essential coping strategies while the healthcare systems fail to treat a myriad of lifestyle diseases,” says the letter.

    3. Health and fitness clubs are prepared to operate safely, and evidence suggests they are relatively safe compared to other venues.

    Data consistently shows that health clubs are not primary drivers of COVID-19 transmission in the community. Safety protocols like mask-wearing, social distancing, adequate ventilation, and cleaning—all commonly implemented in fitness centers—can help reduce the airborne transmission of COVID-19.

    As of this writing, 37 medical, allied health, and public health experts have affixed their name to the letter but medical and health professionals are adding their names all the time.

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    Using the ‘Medical Endorsement of Exercise & Lifestyle Medicine’ Letter

    The purpose of this letter is to summarize (and cite) the key arguments for allowing fitness centers to remain open, and provide an easy way for supportive medical professionals to share their support.

    1. You can help us grow the list and prominence of the signatures. Please share the letter with MDs and PhDs in the fields of medicine and public health and ask them to sign or share with clubs who may have those contacts. Here’s the link to the online consent form.
    2. You can help your local policymakers make evidenced based decisions to keep or reopen clubs by sharing the letter with local policymakers. You can pick the timing—share it now or share it later when the list of names is longer.
    3. You can share the letter with medical professionals to use source material to write their own letters in support of the industry, as the Chicago Medical Society has done.

    That exercise is vital for human health is a near-universally accepted fact in the medical and health communities. Newly released World Health Organization (WHO) 2020 Guidelines on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior outlined the many benefits of physical activity for children, adults, older adults, people with disabilities and non-communicable diseases, and women who are pregnant and postpartum.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, physical activity has declined. Stay-at-home orders, remote work, and business and park closures removed opportunities to be physically active.

    Those who sign the letter affirm “these 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.”

    The letter concludes, “As outbreaks continue globally, the scientific community and the industry continue to research and understand factors that facilitate widespread COVID-19 transmission—such as airborne particles. The fitness industry will continue to evolve and adapt to create the safest possible environment for their members and communities to be physically active. For all of these reasons, policy and health authorities should allow health clubs with strict safety protocols to continue operating and serving their vital role in the community.”

    Author avatar

    Alexandra Black Larcom

    Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, previously served as IHRSA's Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy—a position dedicated to creating resources and projects to help IHRSA members offer effective health programs, and promoting policies that advance the industry.