The rapid spread of the COVID-19 delta variant has led to a spike in cases averaging more than 150,000 a day, a dramatic jump from the 13,000 cases per day the U.S. was experiencing just a couple of months ago. The rise has led some government officials to backpedal reopening policies and renew their focus on prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently modified guidance on mask-wearing for vaccinated individuals, leading several municipalities, universities, and retail brands to reinstate mask mandates. New York City and San Francisco are even requiring proof of vaccination for many indoor activities such as dining, movie theaters, and gyms.
While some uncertainty remains, and many prevention measures – including the vaccine – are key to once again slowing the spread, one thing is clear: regular physical activity and fitness centers are part of the near and long-term COVID-19 solution, and individuals and policymakers should treat it as such.
At the start of the pandemic, fitness centers across the country were temporarily shuttered, having been grouped in with restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues.
But, unlike bars and restaurants, fitness centers provide affordable access to tangible health benefits. Health benefits that specifically mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 and mental health benefits that combat isolation while giving people an outlet for their stress and anxiety.
Specifically, large, well-ventilated fitness centers offer reliable, safe access to exercise, which is essential to strengthening the immune system and decreases the risk of comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes that can lead to severe COVID-19 outcomes and even death. Further, a study from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 42 percent of respondents saying they had experienced undesired weight gain. The average weight gained was 29 pounds. Another study from Kaiser Permanente Southern California found many children also experienced significant weight gain during the pandemic, as overweight or obesity increased nearly 10 percent among 5- through 11-year-olds and 5 percent among 12- through 15-year-olds.
Concerning mental health, physical activity releases endorphins and helps combat the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The same APA study found that 78 percent of respondents said the pandemic was a major stressor for them, and 67 percent said they felt more stressed due to the pandemic. In addition, fitness centers can serve as an opportunity for personal connectivity, as even the most basic social interactions can provide some measure of comfort, ultimately supporting our overall wellbeing.
As the weather gets colder in the coming months, fitness centers will be the only feasible and safe option for many Americans to get the health benefits of exercise. If the past is prologue, the fitness industry has demonstrated its ability to keep its facilities safe. When allowed to reopen last year, fitness facilities implemented a number of safety measures to mitigate any potential COVID-19 spread while allowing members to continue to focus on their health and wellbeing. Fitness centers followed strict physical distancing protocols, equipment was regularly and thoroughly sanitized, and members enjoyed finally getting back into their fitness routines. And it appears the quick action from fitness centers was effective, as there have been no documented outbreaks tied to large fitness centers.
As the nation copes with the delta variant, Americans’ physical and mental health cannot again fall victim to pandemic shutdowns. Physical activity, and the fitness centers that provide safe and reliable access to its immense health benefits, should be recognized for their role in supporting our nation’s health and wellbeing.
• Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., was the 17th surgeon general of the United States. He advises Planet Fitness on COVID-19 response and mitigation efforts.