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Government-Subsidized Gym Memberships?


Meredith says obesity would drop with universal access to fitness clubs

When I write about various topics of interest at my blog, the feedback that I receive from people about my posts usually spawns another discussion entirely on a similar subject matter. And that’s exactly what has happened today.

I received an e-mail from a 20-year old Pilates Instructor from Los Angeles, California named Meredith who wanted to comment on my recent column entitled “Obesity: A Product Of Affluence Or Poverty?” As a certified fitness trainer and health advocate through her Pilates classes and at her blog The Pilates Body, Meredith has an intriguing perspective about what she believes is needed to help reverse the obesity epidemic in the United States and the unique role the government should play in that.

Here’s what she wrote to me:

I love the passion you have for this important topic. And congratulations to you for making such a huge accomplishment!

I thought your statement about not “waiting on the government to come up with a plan” was the most notable. I agree it is not the responsibility of the government to help the obese and overweight lose the pounds, and I also do not think they should wait around for the government to do something.

However, I think the government should provide the ability for everyone to be a member of a health club or fitness program. As a Pilates instructor, I know it can be incredibly expensive to have a consistent trainer and pay for club memberships. Americans simply do not have the extra money to pay for these things.

If employers and insurance companies covered fitness regimens in their policies, I truly believe people could stay motivated to lose the weight and keep it off. It’s all about access and motivation, and I think there is something the government—and employers–can do!

So, Meredith, in essence, believes we should have government-subsidized gym memberships since many people cannot afford to pay for them. That’s the premise of her solution to the obesity problem in a nutshell. But I have several concerns with this proposal she has made.

From an anecdotal standpoint, let me offer my experience about free gym memberships. I was extremely fortunate when I began livin’ la vida low-carb in January 2004 because I work for a company that provides as part of the benefits package a complimentary family membership to the YMCA. How fortuitous! To Meredith’s point, at the time I believed there was NO way I would have been able to afford the hundreds of dollars annually to be a member.

However, after losing 180 pounds in part because of my daily workouts at the YMCA, I spoke with the head of benefits last year bragging about how much I enjoy going to the gym and she shared with me a startling statistic–98 percent of the employees in the company have NEVER used their free gymn membership. NEVER. As in, they don’t go. They haven’t even bothered to darken the doors even once. Holy cow, what’s going on? And the membership even includes three FREE sessions with a certified fitness trainer, too. EEEEK! What’s wrong with these people?!

Sadly, this says a lot about our culture. We already knew that people in general are lazy and unmotivated to get started about making necessary changes in their lives. It took me 32 years to finally get serious about my health and weight problem. While it may sound good to provide every American with a free gym membership compliments of the United States government and/or their employer, what’s the reality going to be? Will people take actually advantage of it or just ignore it completely? If the trend among my fellow co-workers is any indication, then it doesn’t appear very much would change.

That’s not to say I think Meredith’s idea is necessarily a bad one considering all the other ridiculous social programs that our government has come up with over the years. But how effective would having fitness classes like the ones she teaches available at no charge if the people who need it the most choose to stay at home snacking on Cheetos while watching football? I don’t think we have a budget problem necessarily, Meredith, but rather a refusing-to-budge one instead. :)

Speaking of money, though, your other point was that people can’t afford a gym membership. I have to disagree with that and here’s why. If paying to be a member of a fitness club was indeed a priority to them, then people would allocate money from their personal budget to pay for it. Period. We do it all the time with extra expenses such as fast food, bowling, golf, movies, vacations, etc. Health clubs could be subsidized by replacing some of these other activities with payments to this place that could help them lose weight and get into shape. We buy what we want to buy and, unfortunately, gym memberships aren’t at the top of the list.

Let me put on my public policy hat for a moment (I have an M.A. in the subject) and talk about this issue of “the government’s money.” In a nutshell, THEY DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY! Not one red cent. What they have is OUR money and we have elected them to be the caretakers of that money to provide the best services to the Americans who need assistance. This is a reality that too many people forget about when election time comes and they fall prey to the pork barrel legislation that their Congressman promises to them. Isn’t that so nice of them to spend my money on such inconsequential things!

When you start talking about the government paying for gym memberships, what you are basically saying is that people will be paying the government more money in the form of higher taxes to pay for themselves to have a gym membership. So, in the end, people actually CAN afford to join a health club when the government mandates it by offering universal gym memberships. UGH!

Furthermore, if the government stops short of funding the gym memberships out of the federal budget and instead passes legislation requiring business owners to give their employees open access to their local health club, then they are simply passing on an unfunded mandate to companies who will be forced to reduce their payroll dollars or raise their prices to be able to afford this incentive for their employees. Why do we want to put this onus on the foundation of our economy? Is it their duty to make their employees get fit?

Is this really the answer, Meredith? You know I’m a big supporter of exercise, but that’s not the entire answer regarding obesity. We also need a multitude of nutritional approaches promoted to help people make wise choices about their weight problem. Since the government already dishes out unsolicited dietary advice, it certainly is within their realm of responsibility to provide information about a variety of programs that people could choose from to get healthy and lose the weight.

What are your thoughts about Meredith’s idea for the government and/or employers paying for a free health club for every man, woman, and child in this country? Would it work to reduce obesity? Or do you agree with me that it would be a lesson in futility, unfortunately, because people don’t have the passion and desire within themselves to get healthy? Share your comments below or e-mail me at livinlowcarbman@charter.net.

9-18-06 UPDATE: Meredith blogged about her free gym membership idea today providing further support for her belief that the underprivileged are being denied access to this key part of their fitness plan. />
Here’s a quote from that post:

“If employers and health insurance companies included nutritional counseling and health club memberships in their policies…people would be better informed about what they put in their bodies, and they would have the opportunity to exercise safely on a daily basis. Additionally, if the companies provided incentives for employees and carriers participating in a fitness and nutrition routines, Americans would be much more successful in losing weight.”

I still hear UNFUNDED MANDATE screaming in my ears or the BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU mentality that the federal government would bring to the table if they got involved in this issue. But even to the point of simply asking companies to provide these incentives, how many people will use them, Meredith?

I work for a pretty major company and you saw the percentage of people who never take advantage of their free gym membership. How much money is WASTED by companies trying to do something positive for the health of their employeees because they do not appreciate what they are getting? I keep waiting for the day when the benefits department sends out a notice telling us they are discontinuing the YMCA membership because of lack of participation and budget cuts. That day is coming sooner than later.

  • April

    The Governor of my state, Pennsylvania, has instituted a program where state employees pay less for their health insurance if they adhere to certain fitness guidelines. Read about it here: http://www.mprize.org/blogs/archives/2006/04/1.html

    Let’s make health pay off! People in this country will improve if and only if it helps their bottom line, not just their rear end. Make fitness pay, and fat cost. That’s my suggestion.

    a

  • Jimmy Moore

    Hey April,

    THANKS for sharing! I agree that perhaps the government could set up incentives on the back end of weight loss to reward people for getting healthy. In fact, one such thing I would personally like to see is the tummy tuck surgery paid for if someone loses a certain percentage of their starting body weight.

    We’re paying for people to have gastric bypass surgeries in America, so why not give people something like this for losing weight naturally?

    THANKS for sharing, April!

  • Sherrie

    I think when it comes to gyms you have self esteem issues at play as well.

    But regardless, walking is free… if someone really wanted to exercise but couldn’t afford a gym then why not go for a walk?

  • Kent

    Sorry, I can’t agree with any of this. The government should keep its nose out of all this health business as much as possible. If given their past performance, the only sponsored plans would be gyms that spot trained and trained in the same methods from the 50s. If we can’t even trust them to put out nutrition info correctly, what hope do they have with gym memberships. Giving incentives to state employees as means to increase their benefits is one thing. There is however a huge difference between employees and owners (tax payers).

  • Jimmy Moore

    That’s a great point, Sherrie! We are just assuming a gym membership is the ONLY way to get exercise. What about walking around the block in your neighborhood, playing basketball or volleyball, or whatever other physical activity you can get in?

    Again, it SOUNDS like a good idea until you think it through to its logical conclusion. I agree with you too, Kent! The government’s track record when it comes to public health is abysmal. Who’s to say they’ll do any better with fitness than they have nutrition? LOL!

    Anyone else have a comment? Are you taking notes, Meredith? :)

  • Science4u1959

    I agree with Kent on this one. The Gov’t should not poke it’s nose in any of this. In fact most projects, small or big, the Gov’t gets involved in almost always ends in disaster. At the very least it will get expensive and/or ineffective, that’s for sure.

    Although I agree that exercise is useful and needed, I don’t always understand this American obsession with it. There’s no need to make exercise almost a religion and exercise like a demon. Walking is cheap, and effective too. There’s no need to spend a fortune on gyms and expensive designer clothes.

    Simply managing the healthy carbs, eating sufficient fats and proteins, and walk more will do the trick very nicely. Without another unmanageable, ever-growing, evermore expensive and dictatorial bureaucracy.

  • Jimmy Moore

    A reader named Wanda had trouble posting a comment, so she sent it to me for posting (if you have a comment and cannot get it to publish on my blog, just send it to me in an e-mail:

    In no way in heck should the govt get involved at giving out free memberships.

    First of all people have to take there own responsibilty for their actions. They can find a bike or walk just as easy that going
    to the gym.

    Why can’t gyms make it affordable for everyone to go? Why does it have to be the gov’ts job to do it?

    They could give corporate rates to every company who sends their employees to the gym and not get the gov’t involved.

    Do you want a fitness industry governed by the government? That WILL happen if they start shelling
    out the money.

    So everyone is willing to shell out a week’s pay so that everyone can have one? Cause I am not. I pay enough taxes…the money has to come from SOMEWHERE.

  • The Happy Low Carb Taco

    Heck, I PAY for my gym membership and I frequently don’t go. Go figure.

  • cjcbrown

    I say, No to govt subsidies of gym memberships. Some people like gyms but obviously, more don’t.

    Gyms are icky and they have nothing I want. I was with my DD who wanted to join a gym and the guy was trying to get me in too. He kept saying, don’t you want a pool, treadmills, cardio machines, weight machines, free weights, classes, personal trainers?

    I was thinking, crowds, music you can’t get away from, fat phobes, lines, inconvenient class times, time-wasting, driving, trailing-edge dumbed-down-for-safety exercises, ignorance of nutrition.

    I love working at home and you get none of those negatives. But then again I don’t like company like I understand others do.

    However, I could see govt-mandated changes to insurance rules. Like, if we can show our medical risk profiles and fitness performance is good, we have to get a discount. Otherwise insurance companies will never move that way.

    Connie

  • Invisible Blogger

    well, the simple fact that exercise is not an effective weight management tool should be enough to send this silly idea to the dustbin!

  • Lowcarb_dave

    I agree with you Jimmy!
    My fiancee had a free membership to a gym at her last workplace and she didn’t use it the whole time she was there! (2 1/2 years)

    If you want it, you’ll find the cash!

    Dave
    P.S. That Meredith is a good looking gal!

  • Jimmy Moore

    I thought the same thing when I saw Meredith’s picture. I bet she gets mistaken for American Idol winner Carrie Underwood often. :)