| The Providence Journal
Dr. Kenneth P. Moritsugu formerly served as the deputy surgeon general of the United States.
The COVID-19 virus refuses to release its grip on the country as states experience surges in new cases. Rhode Island is in the thick of this new surge with confirmed cases skyrocketing and hospitals nearing capacity. In response, Gov. Gina Raimondo has ordered a two-week “pause,” closing many businesses deemed nonessential, such as bars, casinos and fitness centers. While well-intentioned, the governor should consider grouping fitness centers apart from businesses like restaurants and bars, which exist for convenience. Fitness centers provide affordable access to exercise and all of its health benefits, making it a critical health resource in fighting COVID-19 and the devastating impact the virus has had on our country’s physical and mental health.
The lockdowns across the nation led people to be more sedentary, with 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 that their mental health has been negatively affected by 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 also bring into view issues of health equity and health disparities for some of our most vulnerable populations. In Rhode Island, physical inactivity and obesity disproportionately affect our lower-income population and communities of color. The obesity rate for white Rhode Islanders is 26.2%, compared with 32.2% of Latinos and 37.4% of African Americans.
Fitness plays a critical role in combating the virus and improving people’s overall physical and mental health. Chronic health conditions affecting 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. 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 affects our lower-income communities. While 6.8% of Rhode Islanders who make more than $75,000 a year reported that they experience frequent mental distress, that number jumps to 19.5% for those making less than $25,000 a year.
Levels of stress, anxiety and depression across the United States all increased during the pandemic. To cope, it appears many Americans turned to alcohol, according to a study by RAND and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which found a spike in consumption.
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.
All of this underscores the critical need for regular physical activity — especially now in the time of COVID — for our country’s physical and mental well-being. While weddings, parties and other large group gatherings are known hotbeds for COVID transmission, large fitness centers are not.
In states reopening across the country, thousands of 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. In Rhode Island, those protocols include mask requirements, implementing reservation systems to avoid crowding, stringent cleaning of equipment and screening all employees and members. Large fitness centers are also even spacing out their workout stations and closing locker rooms to limit member interaction.
Certainly, more studies are needed to analyze the effectiveness of COVID-19 protocols to protect public health and safety. Meanwhile, the state’s fitness centers are taking necessary precautions to do their part while also providing an essential service to the public. Governor Raimondo should allow them to continue doing so, as strong physical and mental health will help Rhode Islanders win the battle against this resilient virus.