IHRSA applauds introduction of legislation promoting wellness in the workforce

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association expressed today its ardent support for the Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act (H.R.1748 and S. 1038)—legislation that promotes fitness in the workforce to help keep Americans healthy.
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Boston, Massachusetts, May 8, 2007—The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association expressed today its ardent support for the Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act (H.R.1748 and S. 1038)—legislation that promotes fitness in the workforce to help keep Americans healthy. This legislation fits into a larger movement building in Washington to remove federal barriers to exercise and to transform our current healthcare system from one that focuses on “sick” care to one that focuses on prevention and wellness.

Specifically, the WHIP Act seeks to remove barriers to worker wellness by making fitness center memberships tax-free for employees when provided as an employee benefit. Current law requires workers to pay income tax on such wellness benefits.

Introduced in April by Representatives Zach Wamp (R-TN), Mark Udall (D-CO), Ron Kind (D - WI), and Jim Ramstad (R-MN) in the House, and by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) in the Senate, the WHIP Act already enjoys strong bi-partisan support. And the bills are expected to attract additional co-sponsors in the coming weeks—from both parties—as the nation looks forward to a number of health observances in May, including National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, National Women's Health Week (May 13 through May 19), and National Employee Health and Fitness Day (May 16).

"Rising rates of obesity and Americans' sedentary lifestyles are resulting in escalating healthcare costs," said Wamp, founder and co-chair of the Congressional Fitness Caucus. "The WHIP Act would be an important step in reversing this health trend by promoting physical activity, combating obesity and preventing obesity-related diseases."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who participate in moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity physical activity on a regular basis lower their risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, non-insulin-dependent (type 2) diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, and colon cancer. Yet, more than 50 percent of American adults don't get enough physical activity to provide health benefits. And a startling 30 percent—more than 60 million people 20 years and older—are obese.

"If Congress is serious about increasing wellness and winning the war against obesity, we need to provide greater access to the tools necessary to fight back—including more opportunities to engage in exercise and fitness activities," said Joe Moore, President and Chief Executive Officer of IHRSA.

“The negative impact that sedentary lifestyles are having on America's fiscal and physical health crosses all party lines,” Moore continued. “We applaud all Members of Congress who have shown the fortitude to take action on this crisis of physical inactivity that is eroding our health and vitality as a society.”

According to data from a recent survey commissioned by IHRSA, it appears that many Americans believe they would exercise more if they had the right kind of support. For example, more than half of Americans—57 percent—say they would exercise more often if their employer had programs to encourage exercise, such as providing an onsite facility or a health club membership. And more than two in five Americans say they would exercise more often if the expense was tax free.[1] <#_ftn1>

“Employers are increasingly interested in improving the health status of their employees, as healthier employees are more productive, have lower absentee rates, and have lower health care claims,” says Lisa Horn, Manager of Health Care at the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), a member of the Workplace Fitness Coalition—a diverse group of 22 firms and organizations supporting the legislation. “The WHIP Act would enable employers to help employees focus on prevention and fitness, resulting in a healthier lifestyle and fewer health-related expenses."

Many employers already have taken matters into their own hands by creating work environments that support prevention and healthy living. These companies believe that helping their employees become—and stay—physically active not only helps the employee, but it also helps the company's bottom line.

“I believe that giving people better access to opportunities to get and stay in shape means more productive employees, better health and attendance, plus lower health care cost increases,” says Mahboud Zabetian, Chief Executive Officer of WildPackets, Inc., a developer and manufacturer of computer network solutions. Based in Walnut Creek, California, WildPackets employs roughly 100 people—and to help them maintain healthy lifestyles, the company offers its employees subsidized membership to a local health club.

“Passage of the WHIP Act not only would help employees in their efforts to exercise,” added Moore, “but it would be an important message for the government to send about the critical role that exercise plays in both preserving good health and in controlling the cost of healthcare.”

About the WHIP Act

The WHIP Act allows for the balanced tax treatment for the cost of fitness center memberships as a benefit for all employees, whether the exercise facility is in-house or located off-site. The bill also affirms an employer's existing right to deduct the cost of subsidizing or providing fitness center benefits for its employees. This legislation excludes the wellness benefit from being considered income for employees, making employer contributions to the cost of fitness center fees exempt from an employee's income tax.

Current tax law requires employees to pay income tax on any fitness center fringe benefit an employer might provide unless the fitness center is located at their work site. The employees of firms unable to provide a fitness center in-house face a discriminatory tax code that hinders their ability to benefit from fitness center subsidies. The WHIP Act corrects this inequity in the current tax code to the benefit of many smaller businesses and their employees.

About IHRSA

IHRSA is a not-for-profit trade association representing health and fitness facilities, gyms, spas, sports clubs, and suppliers worldwide. IHRSA is committed to taking a leadership role in advancing physical activity, which is critical to America's health and the battle against obesity and disease. IHRSA supports effective national initiatives to promote more active lifestyles for all Americans and is working to pass laws that will help affect societal changes toward a more fit America.

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