Fitness centers an essential tool in coronavirus fight Leave a comment

Although Americans are desperately hoping the New Year will bring an end to COVID-19, the reality is that we are facing what President Joe Biden has called a “dark winter.” While almost 5 million American health care workers and elderly have received the COVID-19 vaccine already, distribution in the United States still has a long way to go. In the meantime, COVID-19 cases are rising and officials across the country are working to mitigate its spread. Unfortunately, this means reverting to lockdown measures and the closure of non-essential businesses.

However, difficult decisions officials make should reflect all that we’ve learned about COVID-19, how it is transmitted and how it impacts our communities. We know that regular exercise can help prevent chronic health conditions that lead to more severe COVID-19 cases, boost the immune system and help alleviate stress and depression. Yet, fitness centers in Boston remain closed. Physical activity has never been more important, and can help play a key role in our fight against COVID-19. Further, large fitness centers with enhanced COVID-19 related public health practices are essential in providing access to exercise, especially in the coming winter months.

We have learned the initial lockdowns had severe impacts on the mental and physical health of the nation. Sedentary behavior increased by over 30% and a national poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of adults reported that stress about the pandemic had caused a negative impact on their mental health.

Exercise can be part of the solution as it produces endorphins, which not only help relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety but are known to produce long-term mental health benefits. In fact, a recent survey by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association found that 65% of Americans who returned to the gym after the first lockdowns said they are doing so to improve their mental health.

Along with strengthening the body and mind, exercise has a critical role to play when it comes to fighting the virus itself, both lessening its impact and providing protection. COVID-19 causes severe symptoms, a higher chance of hospitalization and death for those who already suffer from chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity. With over 70% of adults already considered overweight or obese, the pandemic has made physical activity critical to improving Americans’ overall health and saving lives. Exercise can help protect all of us from developing these conditions while also producing anti-inflammatory effects that boost the immune system to fight off viruses like COVID-19.

Many large fitness centers are working diligently to make their spaces safe for members to continue reaping the benefits of exercise. Employees wear face masks, equipment is sanitized after each use, locker rooms remain closed and capacity is limited. These precautions are proving to keep their members safe while they focus on what’s important — their wellbeing.

Large fitness centers are more spacious — optimal for physical distancing — and have control over their robust ventilation systems with the ability to replace air hourly. With winter weather in much of the country, large fitness centers are one of the best options Americans have to access indoor physical activity and the benefits that it brings.

This evidence should give policymakers reason to include large fitness centers that implement appropriate public health measures among essential businesses, to allow Americans to improve their mental and physical health in the face of a challenging COVID-19 winter.

Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., was the 17th surgeon general of the United States.

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