What is Population Health & How Does it Connect to Fitness?

What is Population Health & How Does it Connect to Fitness?
By Alexandra Black Larcom

By Alexandra Black Larcom

Courtesy IHRSA.com

Population health and the fitness industry are more connected than many realize, and making ‘physical activity for all’ a reality will require both.

Open a recently published article or report on health, and you’ll likely find the same problem discussed in the opening paragraphs: physical inactivity and chronic disease are ongoing epidemics across many parts of the world.


This isn’t a new problem, and the approaches taken over the last few decades haven’t been enough to move the dial. We need new approaches, and population health is one such promising approach. In this article, we’ll look at what population health is and what role the fitness industry can play in this new approach to the physical inactivity crisis.


In the U.S., six in ten people have at least one chronic disease, and four in ten have two or more. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), non-communicable diseases (NCDs) represent 7 out of 10 global deaths. Chronic disease is associated with:

  • lower mortality,

  • poorer health outcomes,

  • increased risk of depression, and

  • lower quality of life.


Physical inactivity is a contributing cause of at least 35 health conditions, including several of the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., and Australian data estimates that it may be responsible for up to 10-20% of the burden for related chronic health diseases in that country. That burden doesn’t just impact a person’s health—according to one estimate 11.1% of total U.S. healthcare expenditure is related to inadequate physical activity, while the CDC attributes $117 billion in health costs to inadequate physical activity.


What is population health?


While many healthcare organizations and academic institutions have started using the term in the last two decades, the exact definition is still fluid.


The CDC defines population health as “an interdisciplinary, customizable approach that allows health departments to connect practice to policy for change to happen locally. This approach utilizes non-traditional partnerships among different sectors of the community—public health, industry, academia, health care, local government entities, etc.—to achieve positive health outcomes.”


In plain English, population health is an adaptable and flexible approach that enables health authorities to work with partners they might not typically work with across various specialties—including the health and fitness industry—to help improve the health of their communities.


In a world where NCDs cause most deaths, we cannot discuss population health without discussing exercise.


We knew before and have seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that exercise is an essential component of population health. Research has linked exercise to the prevention of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. There is also a large body of evidencesuggesting physical activity is beneficial for mental health and well-being.


Then there are the benefits of exercise in regards to preventing infectious disease. One study found higher levels of regular physical activity lowered the odds of a community-acquired contagious disease by 31% and the risk of infectious disease mortality by 37%.


Additionally, post-vaccine antibody concentrations were higher when linked to a physical activity program. When it comes to the most recent pandemic, evidence found a link between higher activity or fitness levels and lower odds of COVID-19 hospitalization and death.


In 2018, the WHO launched the Global Action Plan for Physical Activity to reduce physical inactivity by 15% by 2030. In 2020 they released updated Guidelines for Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior, calling for governments and communities to invest more in disability inclusion initiatives that would create more opportunities for participating in exercise and sport and a more collaborative relationship between the medical and allied health communities and physical activity and fitness providers.

The Fitness Industry Plays a Key Role
The Fitness Industry Plays a Key Role


This approach certainly isn’t new to the fitness industry. It’s one we’ve been pursuing for two decades. Only instead of “population health” we called it “medical wellness” or “health promotion.”


Many clubs in the industry have partnered with medical and allied health professionals to open fitness to people who may have never been active, let alone used a fitness center, before. In addition to referral systems, many gyms offer allied health services in their facilities, including physical therapy and dietitian services. Although it’s not just gyms, industry partners have launched several different initiatives to facilitate these partnerships.


In the U.S., IHRSA has fought for policies—like the PHIT Act—that would make physical activity more accessible and align it more closely with healthcare. The PHIT Act would enable Americans to use their Flexible Spending Account (FSA) dollars on expenses related to physical activity and sport.


On a global level, IHRSA has collaborated with global organizations, including the OECD, UNESCO Chair, and WHO, to promote and advance physical activity for all, including people with disabilities and chronic health conditions.


However, this work is far from done. It’s time for all sectors and industries to take the population health approach, working with the health and fitness industry to make ‘physical activity for all’ a reality.

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, is the Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy for IHRSA. She spends her days working on resources and projects that help IHRSA clubs offer effective health programs in their communities, and convincing lawmakers that policies promoting exercise are an excellent idea. Outside the office you’ll most likely find Alex at the gym, running on the Charles River, or, in the fall, by a TV cheering on the Florida Gators.




IHRSA, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, is a not-for-profit trade association representing the global fitness industry of over 200,000 health and fitness facilities and their suppliers.


IHRSA maintains a leadership role in advancing physical activity, which is critical to peak health and fight the battle against obesity and chronic lifestyle disease. As one of the world’s leading authorities on the commercial health club industry, IHRSA’s mission is to grow, promote, and protect the health and fitness industry. IHRSA provides its members with benefits and resources that will help them be more successful. IHRSA and its members are devoted to making the world happier, healthier, and more prosperous through regular exercise and activity promotion. IHRSA is the publisher of Club Business International, the leading monthly magazine for the global fitness industry.

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