A Ramona gym owner was recently charged with five misdemeanors for being open during the state’s shutdown orders. By forcing most fitness clubs to remain closed as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic, governments are negatively impacting public health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us a lack of exercise increases our risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and dementia. Health experts have recently started to talk about the “Quarantine 15” in reference to the weight gain some people are experiencing during shelter-in-place orders. It is hard to deny that state-mandated gym closures are contributing to unhealthy habits that could ultimately lead to shorter lifespans for many Californians.
Gym closures have undoubtedly reduced the amount of exercise many of us are getting. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), an industry group, there were 4,172 health clubs in California serving over 9.5 million customers prior to the pandemic. It’s like some of these health club users have not found alternative exercise regimens that fully substitute for the workouts they were getting at the gym.
A lot of attention has focused on home and outdoor exercise alternatives that many are shifting to, such as Peloton’s popular stationary bikes and a nationwide surge in bicycle buying, but many of us have become accustomed to gym-specific equipment like elliptical trainers, weight machines and heavy free weights that are typically found only at health clubs. And many people who can afford inexpensive gym memberships cannot afford to buy their own equipment or have nowhere to put it in their residences.
Unfortunately, when we emerge from the pandemic, many health clubs can be expected to close permanently – reducing our available exercise options over the long-haul. In June, the state’s largest health club chain, 24 Hour Fitness, filed for bankruptcy and announced it would shut down 42 of its California locations. Another large chain, Gold’s Gym, filed for bankruptcy in May and is also planning to downsize.
Many smaller gyms are also on the verge of going out of business. “If we would have closed down, we would never have opened our doors again,” Peter San Nicolas, owner of Ramona Fitness Center, told the San Diego Union-Tribune after he was charged with five misdemeanors for opening.
It is certainly true that indoor activities involving unrelated individuals breathing heavily brings an increased risk of transmitting the coronavirus. But gyms do not pose as much of a public health risk as bars and indoor restaurants, where customers are usually much closer together and take their masks off to eat and drink.
Gyms across the country that have been allowed to reopen are taking measures to mitigate risk. Aside from reducing occupancy, some facilities are adding temperature checks as well as touch-free sign-in procedures. They are also increasing the distance between each piece of exercise equipment. Some have gone so far as to create personal exercise pods – individual workout areas surrounded by clear plastic sheets.
Admittedly, mitigation measures cannot eliminate risk completely. But the risk of bad health outcomes from COVID-19 varies greatly across the population. For example, CDC data analyzed last month showed that people between the ages of 18 and 29 had a COVID-19 case fatality rate of 0.1 percent, which is far below the 30.1 percent fatality rate for people over 85.
Even if California and its counties started allowing fitness centers to re-open tomorrow, many fewer people would be using them. Gyms will have to ensure their customers feel safe coming to workout. But the longer mandatory gym closures continue the more facilities that will permanently go out of business, further magnifying the long-term negative public health impacts of the shutdowns.
Given the variability of outcomes and the risks of not exercising, governments should allow health clubs and their customers to seek solutions and procedures that limit the likelihood of transmitting COVID-19 and make it safe for gym users to return. The state’s current approach—forcing most health clubs to stay closed—is not a healthy prescription for citizens or businesses.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.