Physical Activity Alliance Strengthens & Unifies Fitness Industry

    The PAA brings multiple stakeholders in the physical activity community together to be impactful in policy, systems, and environmental change.

    It is tempting for the health and fitness club industry to feel like lonely warriors while fighting to get the 80% of the American population who are inactive active. The reality is that a legion of organizations, coalitions, and government agencies in the U.S. exist with the sole intention to increase physical activity. Yet many of those organizations worked independently and without collaboration, until the Physical Activity Alliance (PAA) formation in 2020.

    The PAA began as the merger of three organizations—the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance, National Physical Activity Society, and National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA)—with the support of hundreds more to build strength through the unification of all physical activity stakeholders.

    IHRSA played a pivotal role in the birth of the PAA. Helen Durkin, IHRSA’s executive vice president of public affairs, served as NCPPA president as it worked with interested parties to create the PAA.

    IHRSA recently talked to Laurie Whitsel, vice president of policy research and translation of the American Heart Association and senior advisor for the PAA, about what a united physical activity sector, with that active participation of the health and fitness industry, can achieve together.

    “There are so many important initiatives that are happening across the physical activity space, but if we can bring everybody together and coordinate our work, it's going to make us even more powerful.”

    Laurie Whitsel, Vice President of Policy Research and Translation

    American Heart Association

    Common Goals for Physical Activity Organizations

    “The goal of bringing the Alliance together was to unite the physical activity community and coordinate in moving physical activity policy forward,” said Whitsel. “That's what's going to help us move the needle and make progress and increase physical activity and reduce sedentary behavior across the population.”

    The path forward starts with five common goals among all the physical activity sectors:

    1. Motivate the population to be active and care about their health,
    2. Educate people on the importance of being active as well as the benefits of doing so,
    3. Provide knowledge and resources regarding proper exercise and overall health,
    4. Guide others and encourage them to meet physical activity and other health goals, and
    5. Advance physical activity as an essential piece of the healthcare system.

    The PAA is a vital ally for the fitness industry, committed to create, support, and advocate policy and system changes to allow every American to lead physically active lifestyles. The Alliance produced a National Physical Activity Plan—that involved hundreds of professionals, researchers, and leaders from public and private organizations—where the ultimate purpose is to improve health, prevent disease and disability, and enhance the quality of life. Even with all its effort and workforce, the PAA needs—and deserves—reinforcement from the broader fitness industry.

    “There are so many important initiatives that are happening across the physical activity space,” says Whitsel, “but if we can bring everybody together and coordinate our work, it's going to make us even more powerful.”

    Following the November election, the PAA took the opportunity to initiate contact with the incoming Biden administration. The Alliance sent a letter to the administration with a primary objective to start a conversation to prioritize physical activity promotion and physical fitness for all people living in the U.S.

    One Letter Can Open A World of Opportunity

    “[The] transition period is always such an important time to put your issues as front and center as you can with the transition team,” says Whitsel. “Obviously, COVID is first and foremost [in terms of priorities] for the new administration, but physical activity should be part of that solution.”

    As we witnessed in 2020—with government-mandated closures of health and fitness clubs based on opinion rather than fact—there’s a disconnect between the fitness industry, lawmakers, and public health. In a pandemic, to keep everyone on the same page and provide access to vital resources—like gyms and health clubs—Whitsel believes it’s necessary to supply consistent fact-, evidence-, and science-based public health guidance.

    PAA Letter to Biden Column Width

    Whitsel believes we can close this disconnect through a combination of

    • useful and correct public health guidance,
    • thinking transformationally about how we deliver physical activity to the population, and
    • how we frame that in our messaging to inspire people to be physically active.

    In the future, lawmakers and public health officials will hopefully work alongside the fitness industry and realize the importance of physical activity for its immense value—including boosting immunity, reducing the risk and symptoms of chronic disease, and overall mental, social, and physical health benefits.

    In the letter to President Biden, the PAA asked the administration for four things:

    1. Prioritize physical activity across the federal policy landscape,
    2. Increase the commitment to physical activity research across the federal government,
    3. Regularly revise and update the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, and
    4. Support physical activity assessment, prescription, and referral in healthcare.

    According to Whitsel, the first step in advancing physical activity is to make headway in the regulatory environment. “So, we get physical activity integrated into the healthcare system; that only gets us partway down the road. [We need to] connect patients to resources in their community to follow through on that exercise prescription and be able to afford that,” says Whitsel. “That's an important opportunity for health and fitness centers and clubs and gyms to be part of that whole system change.”

    The way to do this? We’ve been saying it all along—unity.

    “We want to increase the number of organizations and individuals that are getting involved in our work because together [is how] we’re going to make the biggest impact,” says Whitsel.

    To stay in the know with the PAA and other news related to physical activity, sign up to receive the Physical Activity Alliance’s newsletter.

    Looking Forward: Physical Activity & Enacting Change

    “I hope that COVID would be a reminder of why we have to keep ourselves healthy and well...[and] it’s created that inspiration for people to say, ‘I need to make some changes to feel better,’” says Whitsel.

    Based on responses in The COVID Era Fitness Consumer, Americans are ready to embrace more physically active and healthy lifestyles following the pandemic:

    • 68% are prioritizing their health more,
    • 59% are eating healthier than they did previously,
    • 77% say they have more time to exercise now, and
    • 65% are spending more time focusing on their own health and fitness than before.
    Future of Fit Social Graphicsanxious about health

    To broaden access for all Americans to exercise and prioritize physical activity nationwide, Whitsel says it’s “critical” to advocate and lobby lawmakers. “As a voter, you’re the one keeping them in office...what you have to say is important to them,” she says.

    Initiating change is all about building relationships and actively engaging in the political process. Getting started can begin in your community, says Whitsel. “Whether it's advocating for a walking and biking trail, physical education in your kid’s schools, [or] connecting your physician to resources in your community for them to refer to when they have patients who need physical activity and fitness opportunities.

    “I don't think you want to underestimate the voice that you have,” says Whitsel. “At the state level, one or two key voices are the difference in a vote.”

    Once the pandemic passes and restrictions are loosened, health and fitness clubs will be more critical than ever. Access to these facilities and the services they provide will only be possible if clubs and gyms receive relief. To use your voice to make a difference, take part in IHRSA’s Twitter campaign. Tweet your lawmaker to tell them to save health clubs and the millions of people the fitness industry employs.

    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.