One less-reported consequence of the lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is the toll the virus has taken on our physical and mental health. As we look for ways to to improve our nation’s health, policymakers should work with fitness centers to ensure COVID-19 transmission-mitigation efforts are in place so that these facilities can remain open and available.
The lockdowns across the nation led people to be more sedentary, with one study showing a 32% reduction in physical activity. In addition, a recent nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that more than half of U.S. adults, about 53%, say their mental health has been negatively impacted by worry and stress over the pandemic. That number is a significant increase from the 32% who reported being similarly affected in March.
Furthermore, these negative health trends may be exacerbated by issues of health equity and health disparities for some of our most vulnerable populations. In Texas, physical inactivity and obesity disproportionately impact our lower-income population and communities of color. The obesity rate for adults in Texas is nearly 35%. However, while only 33% of whites are reported obese, that figure jumps to nearly 40% for Black and Latino Americans.
Most individuals and families don’t have the resources or space for at-home fitness equipment, so access to spacious, well-ventilated, big-box fitness facilities can play an important role in efforts to combat the virus and improve 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.
There is also increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Regular physical activity can protect us from these conditions while helping us to fight the virus. Researchers found that as little as 20 minutes of exercise can have anti-inflammatory effects that boost your immune system.
Mental health, much like physical health, also disproportionately impacts our lower-income communities. While 6.7% of Texas residents who make over $75,000 a year reported that they experience frequent mental distress; that number nearly triples to 18% for those making less than $25,000 a year.
Levels of stress, anxiety and depression across the U.S. all increased during the pandemic. To cope, it appears many Americans turned to alcohol, according to a study by the Rand Corp. and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that 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 toward regular physical activity is 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, especially now in the time of COVID-19, for our country’s physical and mental well-being.
In states reopening across the country, many big-box 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. Here in Texas, those protocols include limiting indoor facilities to 75% capacity, increased sanitization of fitness equipment, closing showers and dressing rooms, and enforcing social distancing requirements.
The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association recently released results from a nationwide survey of people who have returned to their fitness clubs and found that 88% are confident in the COVID-19 mitigation efforts their clubs are using and nearly 65% are using exercise to improve their mental health.
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 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 is a former acting U.S. surgeon general and deputy surgeon general.
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