Doctor Says Gyms Can Prevent COVID-19 & Lessen the Impact

Doctor Says Gyms Can Prevent COVID-19 & Lessen the Impact
By Sami Smith

By Sami Smith

Courtesy IHRSA

Health is of the utmost importance to the health and fitness industry. Throughout the pandemic, the focus of the industry has been to provide people with ways to be active while clubs were shut down. Then, the focus shifted to the institution of stringent safeguards to minimize risk to reopen and stay open. Yet despite these efforts, the media and sometimes public officials have incorrectly labeled the industry as unsafe.


To counter the misconceptions and negative news—and mark health clubs as essential businesses—IHRSA is meeting with medical experts to get their view on the matter. This article is the first in a series in which we will share expert opinions from medical, science, and public health professionals focusing on:


  • exercising safely in clubs during a pandemic,


  • how gyms play a significant role in keeping people healthy, and


  • the overall health benefits of exercise.


We recently spoke with Robert Sallis, M.D., to get his expert advice on the subject.


Exercise Is Essential


Physical activity is a key measure for prevention, management, and treatment of chronic health conditions. It also promotes long-term health and longevity. Approximately 20% of Americans exercise in one of the nation’s 40,000 health and fitness clubs.


COVID-19 has just so vividly exposed our unhealthy lifestyles...You go through the list of risks for COVID-19, especially dying of COVID-19 or being severely ill from COVID-19; those are the diseases of inactivity.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only half of adults get the exercise they need.


“I believe, as a lot do, that physical inactivity is the major public health problem of our time,” says Sallis.


Sallis is co-director of The Sports Medicine Fellowship Program at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, CA, clinical professor of family medicine at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine, and chair of Exercise is Medicine Health Advisory Board. It shouldn’t be surprising that exercise is the first form of medicine that Sallis prescribes to his patients—still!


“I feel, as a longtime practicing family medicine physician, that [physical activity is] absolutely the most important medicine that I could prescribe to my patients,” he says.


We think so, too—the writing is on the walls. Physical activity can:


  • reduce the chances of developing chronic diseases,


  • lessen the risk of contracting non-communicable or communicable diseases (like coronavirus), and


  • improve immune health.


Not to mention, all the other amazing mentalemotional, and overall health benefits of exercise.

COVID-19 Is a Disease of Inactivity


“COVID-19 has just so vividly exposed our unhealthy lifestyles,” says Sallis. “And it really is people who follow unhealthy lifestyles who are at risk for COVID-19…You go through the list of risks for COVID-19, especially dying of COVID-19 or being severely ill from COVID-19; those are the diseases of inactivity.”


Referring to the CDC, some of the diseases of inactivity that increase the risk of severe COVID-19include:


  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease),


  • obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher),


  • type 2 diabetes mellitus, and


  • sickle cell disease.


The pandemic has drastically decreased the level of activity among U.S. adults and children. An Evidation survey with more than 185,000 participants reports that between March 1 and April 8, activity levels declined by 48% among adults.

Whatever it takes to get places where people exercise and can be active to open, we have to do it. It's an essential part of life.”

It’s disheartening—to say the least—that so many people miss the value of exercise. “We’re all sitting in our houses huddled, waiting for a vaccine for COVID-19 instead of going out and being active and exercising, when we know that’s the best vaccine we have right now,” says Sallis.


How do we fix the issue of inactivity during a pandemic?


“We need to get people to take charge of their health. That is the best protection they have against COVID-19,” says Sallis. “This virus is going to be here for a while, we need to figure out how to start living with it, or we’re going to all die related to the avoidance of it.”


Swapping the Narrative: Gyms Are Safe


Lawmakers are incorrectly labeling health and fitness clubs as high-risk businesses to visit during the pandemic. Even with increased cleaning protocols and safety guidelines as well as data and research proving that fitness facilities are not spreading COVID-19, some lawmakers simply will not change their decision. To this point, Sallis says, “They’re not listening to the evidence.”


He added, “We’re allowing people to go on airplanes, we’re allowing people to go into Costco, we’re allowing them to go into their doctor’s offices, [and] we’re taking precautions with [all these businesses]. Why can’t we do the same for gyms, which I consider to be really essential to many people?”


Health clubs have been putting in the work to make their facilities more safe—and cleaner—for members, staff, and the community. It’s truly up to the collective fitness industry to get the message out that these facilities are:


  • safe and clean,


  • able to help with contact tracing, and


  • essential to overall health and fighting off the virus.


“Prevention and treatment [are] just essential…the risk factors for COVID-19 are all improved by doing regular exercise,” says Sallis.


MXM check-in data proves just how safe and valuable clubs are. As of August 7, the data, compiled from 2,877 health and fitness locations with over 49 million member check-ins, shows an occurrence rate of just 0.002% or a 42,731:1 visit-to-virus ratio. Out of the 49 million check-ins, only 1,155 people have entered these locations and tested positive for coronavirus.


Sallis says, “Virtually everyone who died from COVID-19 has some chronic diseases, diseases related to physical inactivity, and why we would not consider [gyms as] essential to try to prevent cases and lessen the impact of them, it doesn’t make sense to me.”


If you’re contemplating visiting a gym, Sallis advises the following:


  • Keep six feet or more of space between others when exercising outdoors.


  • Wear a mask and distance yourself when in the weight room or resistance training.


  • Wipe down all equipment after use.


  • Weigh your own risk.



“It’s a mistake to discount the importance of a gym to some people’s health,” he says. “Those who are most at-risk of utilizing [gyms] have the most to gain from it…Whatever it takes to get places where people exercise and can be active to open, we have to do it. It’s an essential part of life.”


For information on how health clubs can operate more efficiently during and after a pandemic, check out IHRSA’s Key Considerations and Risk Assessments Tools.

Sami Smith is IHRSA’s Communications and Public Relations Assistant. On a typical day, she delivers communications and creates content for IHRSA’s advocacy efforts, while working to shape IHRSA and the fitness industry’s public image on multiple platforms. Outside of the office, you can find her traveling to new areas, indulging in food, or participating in just about any sport.




The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) is a global community of health and fitness professionals committed to building their businesses and improving their communities’ health and well-being. The mission of IHRSA is to grow, protect, and promote the health and fitness industry, and to provide its members with the benefits that will help them be more successful. IHRSA and its members (health clubs and fitness facilities, gyms, spas, sports clubs, and industry suppliers) are dedicated to make the world healthier through regular exercise. For more information visit

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