In summary

When it comes to concerns about COVID-19 in health clubs, initial research suggests these are far outweighed by the benefits of physical activity.

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By Tony Ueber, Special to CalMatters

Tony Ueber is CEO of 24 Hour Fitness, headquartered in San Ramon,

It’s time for California to take a fresh look at the steps needed to keep people healthy.

We all know of the terrible toll of COVID-19, and health officials have been vigilant in ordering steps to reduce its spread. But the effects of the pandemic – just as surely as the virus itself – are also taking a toll.

It should be a surprise to no one that the incidence of mental illness has spiked as workers have lost their jobs, parents have had to cope with shuttered schools, and everyone has faced unprecedented uncertainty.

In ordinary times, mental health experts estimate that about 20% of Americans suffer from some kind of mental illness. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study this summer found that the incidence has doubled this year. Its survey found that 2 out of 5 Americans report at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition related to the pandemic.

Those who work on the front lines have seen the hard evidence. Agencies that operate suicide crisis lines report that callers expressing serious mental health concerns have doubled this summer.

The evidence tells us that this is a time when Californians must be attentive to their mental health. And the science tells us that there is one effective, readily accessible therapy to maintain good mental health and treat many forms of mental illness: physical activity.

Yet in California, a blanket prohibition remains that prevents health and fitness establishments from opening their gyms in all but a few California counties hit by COVID-19.

Health and fitness clubs have long been the places where millions of Californians work off stress. Fitness is essential for the health of their bodies and minds.

There are more than 4,000 health clubs in California, visited each year by nearly 9 million residents. For many, when those clubs are shuttered, so is their access to healthy physical activity.

Californians’ inability to get to a nearby gym has also inflicted significant economic damage. California health clubs employ 177,000 workers, with a payroll of $1.2 billion.

When it comes to concerns about infection in health clubs, initial research suggests these are far outweighed by the benefits of physical activity. The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the organization of the health and fitness industry, surveyed 135 fitness clubs with 3.4 million total club check-ins and found 0.0004% positive COVID-19 cases. No government data has shown that health clubs have contributed to the spread of COVID-19. 

Studies have shown, however, that exercise boosts the immune system and reduces obesity, a condition that can cause complications for those who can become infected with COVID-19, among other diseases. 

And with the right precautions in place, it’s possible to enjoy those benefits of fitness, safely. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced that gyms can reopen. He placed strict conditions on their operations: Gyms are limited to one-third of capacity, everyone must wear a mask, sign-in forms are required, as are air filters to prevent airborne transmission of viral particles.

Similar to our fitness industry colleagues, 24 Hour Fitness has implemented even more stringent health and safety standards in our clubs nationwide.

More than 100 of our facilities are now open, spread over seven states. We offer touchless check in to the club utilizing our free app and accept reservations only for 60- or 90-minute sessions, depending upon the location, that help us limit club capacity as required by state government and public health agency guidelines. Workout reservations must be made in advance. After each workout session, the club is closed for 30 minutes for cleaning.

We mandate that everyone – club members and our own team members –  wear masks and maintain social distancing. Employees receive temperature and health checks daily. Many of our amenities, including pools, saunas, steam rooms and showers, are temporarily closed.

The question policymakers should be asking is not whether health clubs should be allowed to reopen. The mental and physical health needs of Californians demand it. The question ought to be, under what conditions?

As our policies demonstrate, the fitness industry can set health and safety standards that well exceed those of businesses in other industries that continue to operate.

It’s time to give Californians greater opportunity to take care of their physical and mental health.

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