WASHINGTON, DC -- Last week, Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) introduced the Healthy Choices Act in the U.S. House of Representatives as H.R. 5209. The act includes both the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act and the Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act, two exercise promotion bills that provide tax benefits for certain fitness expenses.

“Making the healthy choice the easy choice for our families is essential to ensuring our quality of life,” Kind said at the announcement of the bill's introduction. “Easier access to the tools and education to prevent and treat obesity; affordable, nutritious food to promote a balanced diet; and an increased emphasis on physical activity to maintain our overall health is critical to achieving a healthy lifestyle. I am pleased to work on legislation that helps provide the opportunities that meet the needs of busy American families.”

On hand with Kind were Reps. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH); Audrey Tayse Haynes, senior vice president of YMCA of the USA; Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association; Pam Bailey, CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association; Richard Wolford, chairman, president and CEO of Del Monte Foods and chairman of GMA; and Penny Lee, executive director of the Campaign to End Obesity.

“Strong action at the community level is critical to building environments rich in support of healthy living and helping to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” Haynes said in a release. “The Healthy Choices Act will provide essential resources, tools and opportunities to so many communities to do just that. YMCAs are committed to improving our nation’s health and well-being, and we look forward to working with Rep. Kind and his colleagues to empower individuals of all ages to live healthy, active lives.”

The Healthy Choices Act establishes body mass index as a vital sign, expands obesity treatment and preventive services and coverage of medical nutrition therapy, provides grants to promote health in underserved communities and to train health professionals and health profession students, improves and increases access to nutrition and wellness programs, improves access to and opportunity for physical activity for adults and children, improves access to nutritional information and healthy foods, realigns transportation policy to help promote healthy lifestyles, and expands research and assessment tools on obesity.

Just hours after the introduction of the Healthy Choices Act, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and leaders from the fitness industry gathered on Capitol Hill as part of the 8th Annual Summit for a Healthier America. Industry leaders met with members of Congress to share their vision for a healthier future, urge Congress to address the physical and fiscal costs of physical inactivity, and advocate for passage of the Healthy Choices Act, according to IHRSA.

“We commend Congressman Ron Kind and his fellow co-sponsors for introducing this precedent-setting legislation that provides a comprehensive approach to treating obesity,” says Joe Moore, president and CEO of IHRSA. “With the introduction of this legislation, and the release of our country’s first-ever National Physical Activity Plan, a unifying vision for a healthier future has been laid out—a future wherein engaging in regular physical activity and healthy lifestyles can be an easy choice for all Americans. The legislation that IHRSA is promoting fits into that vision. The inclusion of PHIT and WHIP in the Healthy Choices Act demonstrates the importance of these bills in helping to remove financial barriers to exercise and to making regular physical activity possible for more Americans.”

The PHIT Act allows Americans to use up to $1,000 annually from pre-tax health spending accounts to make expenditures related to organized individual and team sports, fitness and exercise, recreation and other physical activities. Currently, Americans can use pre-tax accounts to pay for prescriptions, doctor visits and other expenses related to the treatment of illness and medical conditions. The PHIT Act would not increase the total contribution limits to those pre-tax accounts.

The WHIP Act would help small businesses provide wellness benefits to their workers. The WHIP Act allows employers to deduct the cost of providing off-site fitness center benefits to their workers and allows employees to exclude up to $900 of the off-site wellness benefit they receive from being considered taxable income. Under current tax law, businesses are permitted to deduct the cost of onsite exercise facilities and employees are not taxed on the benefit. However, if an employer provides this same benefit at an offsite facility, employees who take advantage of the benefit must pay income tax on the value of the subsidy.