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Opinion: As a family doctor, I believe the health benefits of reopening B.C. gyms outweigh the risks of COVID-19

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Josh Levin is a general practitioner working in Victoria. He is a member of the University of British Columbia’s Therapeutics Initiative.

As a family doctor who closely follows the emerging trends in the pandemic, I believe the recent reopening of gyms in British Columbia was the right decision from a public-health perspective.

Although there is the risk of spreading infection, this can be minimized if the usual precautions are taken, such as washing equipment, physical distancing and wearing masks whenever possible. The benefits of allowing people to exercise and improve their physical fitness are, quite literally, innumerable.

Throughout the pandemic, we may have allowed measures to protect us from this virus to eclipse many of the factors that are leading to ill health in the first place. We know that the best way to stand on guard against any pathogen is by starting out as healthy as we can be.

Even before the pandemic, many of my patients – among the most vulnerable in our population, struggling with diabetes, heart disease and excess body fat – needed to be guided toward developing and maintaining healthy habits that would make them more resilient to disease.

Most importantly, people who exercise regularly get direct benefits from improved immune function and indirect benefits by reducing their risk of developing severe forms of COVID-19 infection. Besides these physical benefits, the immediate mood boost that exercise brings, along with the modest amount of social interaction people get when they go to the gym, strengthens their resilience to the psychological stress of the pandemic.

I’m a strong advocate for lifestyle as medicine. Daily exercise and a healthy diet are among the best ways to prevent and even treat many conditions that lead to poorer health.

Part of my job description is keeping my patients as fit as they can be, as I know this can help reduce the severity and duration of many health concerns, including those posed by viruses. We know that being overweight or obese is strongly correlated with being hospitalized with COVID-19. So it is difficult to stand by and watch the pandemic lead people to be more sedentary. It also certainly doesn’t help that previous B.C. public-health orders have closed gyms and fitness facilities, which I think may have had a huge negative impact on the health of the population.

I tend to prescribe exercise to my patients, believing that many of them benefit from practical, evidence-based ways to be more active. I try to figure out what kind of exercise the patient likes and is likely to be able to sustain. We set goals, check in on progress and modify if needed. Many of my patients don’t want another pill, they want some reliable guidance. And if they end up getting their physical activity in the gym or local recreation centre, the bonus may even be greater. They may find that as they improve their physical health, they also get a boost to their mental resilience by interacting with others in a positive, active environment. We are a social species, and those kinds of bonds are incredibly important for our mental well-being.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has been hard on people both physically and mentally. Not only are people less physically active, the effects of restrictions are wreaking havoc psychologically. It is no coincidence that a recent survey by the Public Health Agency of Canada looking at COVID-19 and mental health found that the number of Canadian adults screening positive for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. This “silent pandemic” may place a costly burden on our health care system for many years after the viral pandemic is over.

Keeping active might be our best defence against the virus and can gird us to better handle whatever else the pandemic throws at us.

If fast-food restaurants, bars and casinos can remain open with safety measures, then there is no reason why gyms and recreation centres can’t do the same. Our society – and our health care system – cannot afford to create more barriers to physical activity during the pandemic.

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