Just before the pandemic started in March 2020, I made one very poor decision ― getting rid of a large, infrequently used desk — and one excellent decision — purchasing a used treadmill to put in the desk’s former spot. Although my wife had misgivings about the switch, I told her that getting to the gym had become harder for me with our two boys engaged in more activities and that having a treadmill at home would make it easier for me to exercise and save some time.
Then came the pandemic, and for a period of time, many businesses, including fitness centers, were restricted or closed. Needless to say, my decision to buy the treadmill made me look like a genius. The desk decision? Not so much. In any event, I was able to maintain a pretty consistent exercise regimen while working from home, although my dedication has admittedly waned since returning to the office.
As we enter the new year, many of us will recommit to healthy behaviors, including engaging in more physical activity, and there is little doubt we need it. A majority of studies have reported decreases in physical activity and increases in sedentary behavior during the pandemic across several populations, including children and patients with a variety of medical conditions. In turn, this has negatively influenced mental health and well-being, as those whose physical activity declined the most during the pandemic experienced worse mental health outcomes.
With the omicron COVID variant raging, some will find that the risk of sweating around strangers in a gym is still too great, and most won’t have the ability — whether due to cost or space — to invest in large equipment for physical activity at home. Some gyms have pivoted to online fitness programs, and 70% of people who have used such programs during the pandemic plan to keep them long-term.
For those who are ready to return to in-person or group fitness in 2022, they can unfortunately expect fewer brick-and-mortar options, with a sizable number of gyms having shuttered during the pandemic. According to a report by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), fitness industry revenue declined by 58% in 2020 compared to the previous year, resulting in some large fitness chains, including Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness, filing for bankruptcy in 2020. Industry leaders including the IHRSA say that permanent closures of gyms are at 25‒30% since the start of the pandemic.
Closures can certainly be disruptive for those of us with other alternatives for exercise. However, for those in rural or low-income communities or elderly or disabled populations who rely on a safe environment for physical activity, the closure of fitness centers or cost increases for gym membership due to lower volume can have disparate impacts. This is particularly true given the existing environmental barriers to physical activity in some communities, such as safe sidewalks, bike paths and access to broadband for virtual alternatives.
There are some rather modest evidence-based interventions such as joint use agreements that allow community members access to existing school recreational spaces, and there are substantial investments such as development of community centers or sports complexes. Communities have an extraordinary opportunity with American Rescue Plan funding to improve the health and well-being of their citizens and reduce the factors that contribute to health disparities through investments in parks, public plazas and other outdoor recreation. Southern cities like Starkville, Miss., where the city council has devoted the majority of its ARP funds to parks, and Richmond, Va., where the city council endorsed spending the majority of ARP funds on recreation centers, parks, trail development and green space, are leading the way.
We don’t have to return to pre-pandemic levels of access to physical activity in our Arkansas communities. As we make our individual resolutions for the new year, we should also resolve as communities to invest in and make available opportunities for physical activity that are safe, affordable and accessible for all.
Editor’s note: Craig Wilson, JD, MPA, is the director of health policy for the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, an independent, nonpartisan health policy center in Little Rock. The opinions expressed are those of the author.