WASHINGTON, DC — As President Bush prepares for another four years in office, the nation is seeing a change in the administration's personnel, but the fitness industry probably will not see a drastic move by the administration to change its stance on many of the issues affecting small businesses and the fitness industry.
Some in the fitness industry have said that the president's strong interest in fitness has been a major plus to the industry, especially since it comes at a time when more people have been made aware of the obesity crisis the nation faces.
“IHRSA is a non-partisan organization, but I think it has been a generally positive four years,” Kevin Buckley, deputy director of government relations at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), said about the first four years of the Bush administration. “Regardless of your political affiliation, nobody can argue that we have a president who is completely devoted to his personal fitness regime and is committed to getting Americans engaging in regular exercise.”
During the past four years the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has taken on the issues of obesity and physical inactivity much more aggressively than in years past, Buckley said.
“The studies they have released and the educational material clearly demonstrates they are trying to stop this epidemic from growing,” he said. “That coupled with the fact that we saw substantial tax relief, including the phasing out of the federal death tax, I think one would have to conclude that business owners are operating in a more tax friendly environment as well as one that is placing increased emphasis on Americans engaging in daily exercise.”
Over the next four years of the administration, IHRSA is hopeful that HHS will continue to build on efforts to focus on ways to get Americans to exercise and address the obesity issue. President Bush has publicly commented on the fact that exercise is the only way to truly prevent illness, Buckley said.
“The Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act is right in line with HHS encouraging employers to address the obesity issue in the workplace so we are hopeful to see this become law,” said Buckley. The WHIP Act (which is in committee in both the House and Senate) would allow employers to deduct the cost of health club memberships for their employees and would ensure that this benefit would not be classified as additional income to employees.
In its favorable 2002 ruling on the costs of weight-loss programs, the IRS specifically recognized and stated that “obesity is medically accepted to be a disease in its own right,” said Buckley. In the past year, the IRS has modestly liberalized the kinds of expenses qualified for flexible spending accounts.
“IHRSA's goal — and something we think the Bush administration should be supportive of — is to qualify health club expenses and other exercise and wellness activities as allowable expenses under flexible spending accounts,” said Buckley.
In addition, one of the president's top priorities has been calling for Congress to pass an Association Health Plan bill, said Buckley.
“This would allow the businesses in our industry to band together and negotiate better rates on health insurance for their employees and families,” said Buckley. “Obviously, most business owners have been increasingly concerned about the double digit increases in health care costs that they have seen in the last few years.”
Buckley said that the Bush administration has a real opportunity to implement some concrete policy solutions to help address the obesity epidemic. The opportunity stems from the fact that Bush will be working with a Republican-controlled Congress.
“If we have a Republican Congress and the president is likely to sign what his party agrees to, it seems to me we have issues that can move forward,” said Rick Caro of Management Vision.
In Caro's view, the real issue isn't who is in the White House for the next four years but who is in Congress.
“It really matters who gets elected in Congress and what role they take,” said Caro. Getting the word out, giving proper signals to people in terms of weight loss, especially supervised weight loss — all of that will come from Congress.”
While the president can suggest certain programs and directions, those programs must be enacted through legislation that Congress must get behind, propose and push through. IHRSA is especially hopeful that at least the next two years will be good ones for health clubs. All but one of the Congressional candidates that IHRSA supported during this election were re-elected.
What effect a continued Bush administration will have on university fitness and recreation centers depends on the size and source of funding of the institution. For example, the University of Minnesota's Recreation Center in Minneapolis probably won't be affected as far as funding goes because they are funded solely through revenue and student service fees. That may not be the case for other institutions — especially smaller schools.
“In my experience it's the smaller institutions that don't have enough students to foot the bill,” said Jim Turman, assistant vice provost of recreation sports at the University of Minnesota. “So, a number of facilities at smaller public institutions may have some state appropriated money.”
And that money may be affected more by state politics, than federal politics, Turman said. Looking at a school's state legislature may be the best indicator of the years ahead, even for those large schools where recreation centers aren't dependent on public funding.
“As institutions are having to assume a greater deal of the debt load for academic buildings, and the state is making the institutions pay more, then I think that could affect priority funding issues within particular institutions,” he said.
Although some facilities may seem unconcerned about losing any financial support, in reality, they may have some indirect consequences through the priority of funding, he said.
If anything though, the trend of building and renovating facilities isn't likely to end anytime soon. According to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA), about 75 percent of the 825 college and university campuses have some type of recreation facility.
“It's a little early to tell, but as far as I know, recreation centers will continue to be built and continue to be funded,” Barry Brown, marketing director of NIRSA, said.
Another four years under the Bush administration probably won't change much in the military sector, but for military fitness facilities it's still a bit of a “wait and see” game, according to Bob Sikora, sales rep for MedX/Core Fitness and Woodway USA treadmills for both military and civilian facilities.
“It's interesting what the reaction will be with Bush as president,” Sikora says. “Are they going to come through with [funding for] the military?”
Fitness professionals can urge action on issues of interest to them by talking with their congressional representatives about those issues.
“Every year in May we invite operators from all over the country to come to DC and conduct meetings with their representatives,” said Buckley. “Every year I think people are surprised at how receptive their senators and representatives are to them. Elected officials truly want to hear the opinions of business owners and operators in their districts. It really is as simple as that.”