- - Sunday, October 18, 2020

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming presidential election, Americans are tuning into the news to hear the latest numbers on both, yet when it comes to COVID-19, there is another set of numbers that Americans should be aware of — the toll the virus has taken on our physical and mental health.

The lockdowns across the nation led people to be more sedentary, with a 32 percent reduction in physical activity — a step back considering America was already confronting a health crisis with over 70 percent of adults considered overweight or obese. In addition, a recent nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that more than half of U.S. adults — about 53 percent — say that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the pandemic. That number is a significant increase from the 32 percent who reported being similarly affected in March.

Physical activity plays a critical role in combatting the virus and improving people’s overall physical and mental health. Chronic health conditions impacting millions of Americans including obesity, hypertension and diabetes can cause complications and significantly increase the chances of hospitalization and death for those who contract COVID-19. Regular physical activity can protect us from these conditions while helping us to fight the virus. You may not think you have the time to squeeze in a workout, but researchers found that as little as 20 minutes of exercise can have anti-inflammatory effects that boost your immune system.

Our nation’s mental health has been impacted as well — stress, anxiety and depression all increased during the pandemic. To cope, it appears many Americans turned to alcohol, according to a study by RAND and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) which found a spike in consumption. As lead author of the study and RAND sociologist Michael Pollard noted, “People’s depression increases, anxiety increases, [and] alcohol use is often a way to cope with these feelings.”

Once again, fitness can play a role, turning people away from increased alcohol use and towards regular physical activity known to have long-term mental health benefits that reduce those conditions many are struggling with right now.

All of this underscores the critical need for regular physical activity in the lives of Americans — especially now in the time of COVID-19 — for our nation’s physical and mental well-being.

In reopening across the country, thousands of fitness centers have developed, in coordination with local and national public health officials, stringent safety and sanitization protocols to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, as employees and participants wear masks where required, observe social distancing, and sanitize equipment.

Most Americans don’t have the financial ability or space to accommodate at-home fitness equipment, so policymakers should have an eye towards keeping fitness centers open, especially as temperatures begin to cool across the country and air quality on the West Coast prohibits people from safely exercising outdoors.

There are certainly concerns in regards to safety of fitness centers. In the absence of a central repository of nationwide fitness center data, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and MXM sought to accumulate available data, collecting information from thousands of fitness centers and millions of member fitness center visits.

Certainly, more studies are needed to analyze the effectiveness of COVID-19 protocols to protect public health and safety. Meanwhile, many fitness centers are taking necessary precautions consistent with CDC and other local guidelines to do their part while also providing an essential service to the public — enabling Americans to take care of their physical and mental health.

• Dr. Kenneth P. Moritsugu formerly served as the deputy surgeon General and the acting surgeon general of the United States.

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