Expanded access to exercise will make a healthier California

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OPINION – There’s simply no question that exercise is beneficial to health. Regular exercise supports heart function, lowers blood pressure, combats diabetes, and improves mental well-being, among myriad other benefits. That’s why it’s important that we as a society make sure regular exercise and physical fitness is accessible to all.

Unfortunately, not everyone lives in a place where it’s safe to walk, run or bike, and not everyone can afford a gym membership as an alternative to outdoor exercise. As a result, 40 percent of California adults making $50,000 or less do not get the recommended amount of exercise and only 26 percent of children from families making less than $25,000 a year participate in a healthy level of physical activity. In addition, children are no longer getting the exercise they need while at school.

Proactive ways to improve the physical and mental well-being of Californians are desperately needed. Currently, 40 percent of California adults report having at least one of five chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, serious psychological distress, or asthma. And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2021 more than 32 percent of adults report symptoms of anxiety or depression. A recent California Endowment survey found it’s even worse for young adults, with more than three-quarters reporting anxiety, more than half reporting depression, and 31 percent reporting that they have experienced suicidal thinking.

Access to a safe and consistent place to exercise can help improve the health and well-being of countless Californians. Research shows that up to 80 percent of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and more than 30 percent of cancers could be prevented through increased exercise, eliminating tobacco, improving diet and decreasing alcohol use. And a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than leading medications in managing depression.

Access to a safe and consistent place to exercise can help improve the health and well-being of countless Californians.

To ensure equity and to help improve the physical and mental well-being of the most underserved among us, fitness professionals, health care workers and health care advocates are calling upon the legislature to pass Assembly Bill 1338 (AB 1338) – a simple and cost-effective way to help ensure a healthier, happier California. Introduced by Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine), AB 1338 will cover the cost of fitness memberships for Medi-Cal beneficiaries, helping to advance health equity, improve quality of life, and save on long-term health care costs for millions of Californians.

The fitness and physical activity industry – including gyms, studios, community centers, dance studios and youth sports – provides safe locations for Californians to exercise and plays a critical role in preventive healthcare. By adding access to fitness and wellness services to the list of pre-approved Community Supports under California Advancing and Improving Medi-Cal (CalAIM) and encouraging medical providers to educate patients about the benefits of exercise, AB 1338 will create access to proactive, cost-effective alternatives to traditional medical services, help decrease human suffering, and over the long term reduce the need for a range of covered Medi-Cal benefits, such as hospital care, nursing facility care and emergency department use.

In addition to improving the health of Californians through access to fitness, AB 1338 will help lower long-term health costs in the state. Currently, 42% of total state health care costs are spent treating chronic conditions, with an estimated $141 billion in direct costs spent on heart disease, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, depression and asthma. As a result of access to exercise, just a 1 percent reduction in weight, blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol risk factors would reduce annual medical costs by $83 to $103 per person enrolled in Medi-Cal, resulting in a potential health care cost savings in the state of up to $135 million per year.

Providing access to exercise to the most underserved among us through passage of AB 1338 will help improve their physical and mental well-being and lower health care costs for the long term. It will reduce chronic illness suffered by so many. And it will help countless Californians create lifelong habits that will improve their lives and the lives of their children.  We urge the legislature to pass AB 1338  for a healthier California.

Francesca Schuler is President of the California Fitness Alliance

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