IHRSA lobbyists position clubs as solution to obesity crisis

Participants in the second annual IHRSA Legislative Summit, held May 19-21 in Washington, D.C., earned the support of receptive legislators in positioning the fitness industry as a ready-made solution to America's obesity epidemic.
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Participants in the second annual IHRSA Legislative Summit May 19-21 in Washington, D.C., asked for the support of legislators as they positioned the fitness industry as a ready-made solution to America's obesity problems.Â

"Our members are so dedicated to combating obesity," Kevin Buckley, IHRSA's deputy director of government relations, told SNEWS®. "Our industry is ready to answer the move to preventative health care, and to educate (members of Congress) and hear them talking about this now is great."

About 120 health club owners and operators -- and only a smatternig of suppliers -- attended, which is about the same number as last year, many of which had returned for this year's event. The attendees represented 25 states and Canada.

"This was such an incredibly positive experience -- particularly to see members who initially were a bit nervous about meeting their congresspersons go on to hit complete home runs," Buckley said. "Plus, they learned that their legislators were interested in and appreciated hearing from them."

Divided according to their home states, attendees hit Capitol Hill for 140 legislator meetings, focused mainly on garnering more support for the Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) bill, which would equalize tax treatment of both on-site and off-site corporate subsidized facilities and programs. Going into the summit, WHIP had 15 sponsors from the House of Representatives and two from the Senate; as a result of the lobbying sessions, five more representatives signed on and several senators gave verbal commitments.

Ken Lucas, the president of Matrix Fitness Systems, a sponsor of the event, said attending this second year was noticeably different.

"Last year we didn't know what to expect," Lucas said. "We now had a year's experience and legislators knew we were serious about this, so confidence and overall reception were much better."

Another outcome of the summit was drawing together club owners, according to Debra Siena, a second-time attendee and a regional vice president for Tennis Corporation of America.

"People in this industry are passionate about it, and there is nothing more powerful than when club operators unite for a common cause and a higher goal to progress and position our industry," Siena said.

Buckley agreed. "People were very excited and a real camaraderie has formed -- even among competitors who want to stay in touch and fight together for the common good."

The packed summit agenda also featured several high-profile speakers, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; former U.S. Congresswoman Susan Molinari, R-N.Y.; Dr. Walter Bortz, clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine; and Dr. Bill Kohl from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. IHRSA also awarded Congressman Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., its 2004 Industry Champion Award; Manzullo is co-sponsor of WHIP and chairman of the House Small Business Committee.

As for next steps, participants will ensure that verbal commitments to WHIP become actual signatures, as well as work to raise local community support for health clubs as a solution to obesity.

"More people will die from obesity this year than from smoking, and we've been preaching to the choir in the past," said Siena. "Now is the time to get involved -- it is so important to our livelihood and our industry position."

Lucas hopes that more industry representatives participate in future summits. "This is a great civics lesson and wonderful education opportunity, and once you see and experience this, you can't not do it."

Follow-up packets are available from IHRSA for those who did not attend but would like to get involved.

"We have our work cut out for us, but this a challenge we clearly have risen to," Buckley said. "Our industry now is becoming well known in the political arena, and we need to partner together and address this epidemic."

SNEWS® View: We're glad to see that the industry is doing a better job at creating a political presence, and it's tough to argue against it being at least one resource to help fight ballooning obesity and inactivity numbers in the United States. Progress is being made among our legislators, which the industry hopefully will continue to leverage and build on each year. We would have liked to see more manufacturer representation -- seems that only folks from sponsors Matrix, Cybex and Technogym showed up. That would present a more united front and make this event less exclusively club-centric, which it actually is not. Suppliers have a lot to gain from the lobbying efforts too! But this is a step in the right direction and only can help the industry as Congress looks at ways to tackle the growing obesity epidemic.

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