Medical Experts on the Safety & Value of Clubs

Physicians say a healthy lifestyle is the closest thing to a vaccine we have, and give more reasons to prove health clubs are safe and essential.

You’ve most likely heard the argument that gyms and health clubs are inherently unclean and could contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Such statements are false and misleading and create serious problems for the fitness industry.

Given the increase in negative public perceptions, the industry is anxious to prove that clubs are safe and essential for overall health.

As a global trade association, IHRSA has a unique ability to unite voices worldwide to promote physical activity, while growing, protecting, and promoting the industry. We’re looking to set the record straight, in part by gathering expert opinions about the safety and efficacy of clubs.

Our new Medical Expert Series has garnered attention with its first three installments:

  1. Doctor Says Gyms Can Help Prevent COVID-19 & Lessen Its Impact
  2. Health Clubs Are Valuable; Policymakers Need to Make Changes
  3. Lockdowns Cause Severe Mental & Physical Health Consequences

Interviews with other medical, science, and public health professionals continue to take place, focusing on the topics of:

  • exercising safely in clubs during a pandemic
  • how gyms play a significant role in keeping people healthy
  • the overall health benefits of exercise.

Here’s what IHRSA’s first three contributors had to say.

Clubs Keep People Healthy

Robert Sallis, M.D, the director of the Sports Medicine Fellowship Program at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, CA, and chair of the Exercise is Medicine advisory board, says, “We need to get people to take charge of their health. That is the best protection they have against COVID-19.”

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It’s clear that those with pre-existing conditions—such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)—are at high risk of contracting severe cases of coronavirus, and, as a result, have the most to gain from clubs.

Greg Degnan, M.D., the medical director of the Atlantic Coast Athletic Clubs in Charlottesville, VA, and the associate clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia, 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.”

Even though there are a host of virtual exercise options available, motivation can be difficult to achieve on one’s own. A gym workout is one way to obtain it, strengthen the immune system, and prevent life-threatening instances of coronavirus.

“We're all sitting in our houses huddled, waiting for a vaccine for COVID-19 instead of going out and trying to improve our health by being active, eating right, and not smoking, when we know that's the best vaccine we have right now,” observes Sallis.

People who are high-risk aren’t the only ones affected by club closures and restrictions The doctors note that during the crisis social isolation and quarantine have come with negative consequences, which exercise could counter.

Lori Deemer, M.D., the medical director of the Hancock Wellness Centers, in Hancock County, IN, and a board member of the Medical Fitness Association (MFA), notes that she’s seen isolation impact her older patients and ones struggling with anxiety, depression, and addiction.

She says, “Being able to get out and safely be active is so essential for remaining physically independent, relieving stress, staying connected relationally (which has been linked to overall mortality rates), managing mood, and, in some cases, staying sober.”

Rx: Club Workouts Are Safe

Each of IHRSA’s medical experts agreed that, with proper safety and cleaning guidelines, health clubs should be viewed as part of the solution to the pandemic, and a way to strengthen overall health.

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Sallis recalls being “dismayed” as the government shut down so many low-risk activities and facilities that facilitated physical activity was a factor. He says, “It's a mistake to discount the importance of a gym to some people's health.”

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.

With these protocols in place, all three doctors believe the overall risk of contracting coronavirus at a club is low. Club check-in data seems to back up this statement.

“My advice to my patients, and how I approach this personally,” says Deemer, “is that, if you are not having symptoms, have not had recent known exposure, and you are practicing the three W’s diligently—watch your distance, wear your mask, and wash your hands—it is best for your overall health to be physically active and live life as normally as possible.”

“COVID-19 has vividly exposed our unhealthy lifestyles,” concludes Sallis. “This virus is going to be here for a while, we need to figure out how to start living with it, or we're going to all die related to the avoidance of it.”

To read other installations in this series, visit the Medical Expert Series.

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Sami Smith

Sami Smith is IHRSA's Communications & Digital Content Producer. On a typical day, she delivers communications and creates content to shape IHRSA's image on a variety of digital platforms. Outside of the office, you can find her traveling to new areas, indulging in food, or participating in just about any sport.