WASHINGTON, DC — Americans may soon have a financial incentive to join a fitness facility. A bill introduced in Congress proposes the expansion of medical flexible spending accounts to include health club memberships, home exercise equipment, sports league registration costs and healthy lifestyle programs like Weight Watchers. With a $1,000 limit for tax-deductible exercise expenses, Americans could save 25 to 30 percent on the cost of keeping fit, depending on their income tax bracket.

“This bill treats exercise as preventive medicine, which it should,” says Tom Scanlon, the president of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, which supports the Personal Health Investment Today Act of 2006. “It enables people to pay for their YMCA, JCC or private health club membership out of pre-tax dollars. The bill relieves some of the financial burdens of being physically active.”

The PHIT bill focuses on prevention rather than treatment, says Jay Sweeney, a lobbyist for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

“With rising health care costs, we have to find a way to get people healthy, or we'll bankrupt our health care system,” he says.

The Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to look at the HR 5479 bill, which was introduced on May 25 by Rep. Jerry Weller (R-IL), and if approved, the bill will be considered by the House of Representatives.

Another piece of legislation could also have an effect on the fitness industry. The Preventive Medicine for a Healthier America Act of 2006 (HB 5657) has three goals — to increase the number of individuals pursuing careers in preventive medicine, make the public more aware of the importance of preventive medicine and encourage businesses to offer employee wellness programs.

A proposed amendment in the IRS code would give employers a $200-per-employee credit if the businesses develop and implement their wellness program with the help of a physician, provide at least two preventive health screenings and offer health resources for employees.

To review copies of the bills, visit the Web site for the Library of Congress at http://thomas.loc.gov.