The COVID-19 virus refuses to release its grip on the country as states experience surges in new cases. New Mexico is in the thick of this new surge with confirmed cases skyrocketing and hospitalizations rising 214% over the past month. In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has temporarily revived shelter-in-place restrictions, closing non-essential business – including fitness centers – for two weeks. While well-intentioned, the governor should consider categorizing fitness centers apart from 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. And, a nationwide Kaiser Family Foundation poll reports 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 also bring into view issues of health equity and health disparities for some of our most vulnerable populations. In New Mexico, physical inactivity and obesity disproportionately impact our lower-income population and communities of color. The obesity rate for white New Mexicans is 25.5% compared to 37.8% of Latinos and 30.8% of African Americans. The rate is even higher for American Indians and Native Alaskans – 41.6%.
Fitness plays a critical role in combating the virus and improving 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. You may not think you have the time to squeeze in a workout, but researchers found that as little as 20 minutes of exercise can have anti-inflammatory effects that boost your immune system.
Mental health, like physical health, also disproportionately impacts our lower-income communities. While 6.1% of New Mexicans who make over $75,000 a year reported they experience frequent mental distress, that number jumps to 20.3% 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 RAND and the National Institute of 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 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 – for our country’s physical and mental well-being. And while weddings, parties and other large group gatherings are known hotbeds for COVID transmission – large fitness centers, on the other hand, 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. Here in New Mexico, those protocols include adhering to maximum occupancy state guidelines, stringent cleaning and temperature checks of employees and customers. In addition, large fitness centers are spacing out equipment, enforcing the use of face masks and closing their 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 providing an essential service. (Gov.) Lujan Grisham should allow them to continue doing so, as strong physical and mental health will help N.M. win the battle against this resilient virus.