Credit: George Danby

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As a family practice physician and a part owner of fitness clubs in Maine, I am in the unique position to think about how to safely reopen fitness centers.

I deeply appreciate the work being done by state employees to protect the public and to navigate the safe opening of the Maine economy. As a physician and a businessman, I also believe we need science-backed strategies to safely restart our economy.

The science: It is incontrovertible that fitness helps strengthen the human immune system. Indeed, according to Zhen Yan of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, recent medical research “strongly supports” the possibility that exercise can prevent or at least reduce the severity of acute respiratory disorder associated with COVID-19.

Exercise is crucial to our health. Fitness centers are an important resource for people working to stay healthy. It shouldn’t be a question of whether we open fitness centers, it should be a question of how we open them. We can exercise and be safe.

The benefits of exercise outweigh the risks of infection, if appropriate safeguards are in place. In a recent article in the New York Times, Dr. Deverick Anderson, professor of medicine and director of the Duke Center for Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infection Prevention at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, puts the issue in perspective: “What it comes down to is that the risks will never be zero … But at the same time, there are so many mental and physical health benefits to the workouts. So, my approach is that I will accept some risk but be aware of the steps I need to take to mitigate it. And then, yes, I will go back.”

It’s time for the state to allow the reopening of fitness centers much like many of the other states in the country. The state should require them to meet the highest standards of sanitation and social distancing. Planet Fitness has developed a robust operational playbook on how to safely reopen fitness centers. It includes personal protective equipment (PPE) for all team members, touchless check-in to promote physical distancing, occupancy guidelines, rigorous sanitizing utilizing disinfectant effective against COVID-19, increased cleaning stations throughout the facility, cardio distancing measures such as marking pieces of equipment temporarily out of use to enable additional space among members, and much more. We think it is a model for all businesses, not just fitness clubs, to safely reopen.

The power of the word “and” needs to be embraced as we recover from COVID-19. We can be safe and reopen our economy. We can exercise and strengthen our immune systems. We can put people back to work and provide the necessary safeguards to keep them healthy.

We understand and respect the difficult challenges facing our leaders. We hope they will respect and understand that we are fully committed to keeping our members and our employees safe and healthy. Being unemployed, like being unhealthy, has long-lasting impacts on our mental and physical health. It’s time to find a path forward that keeps Mainers safe, healthy and working.

Ben Heiderscheidt of Durham, New Hampshire, is a family physician and part owner of several Planet Fitness gyms in Maine.