Key findings:

  • In 2019, there were 64.2 million U.S. gym memberships, with an average attendance of 104 days a year per gym goer.
  • On average, 76% of Americans have participated in physical activities in the last month.
  • A study on physical activity during stay-at-home orders found 43.8% of participants indicated a decrease in physical activity
  • Nearly 88% of workers reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress over the first six weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Physical activity and obesity rates are linked to health conditions like COPD, hypertension and diabetes, which are deemed high-risk health conditions for serious COVID-19 illness.

Pros and cons of being physically active during COVID-19

As much of the country went into lockdown in mid-March from COVID-19, many active people saw a significant disruption in their fitness routines. Gyms across the country shuttered due to the high risk of spreading among attendees. Without gym and fitness centers open, the estimated 64.2 million U.S. gym goers were left without a place to workout. The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association estimates average gym attendance is 104 days a year, nearly once every three days. The benefits of physical activity reach far beyond the physical portion and play a large role in people’s mental health. Without gyms to attend and with mounting stress of the pandemic, many physically active people saw a decline in their mental health. A study on physical activity during stay-at-home orders found that 43.8% of study participants indicated they’d had a decline in physical activity. The majority of study participants who saw a decline in physical activity showed a significant association with increased stress and anxiety.

infographic of how physical activity declined during pandemic

In a separate study, nearly 88% of workers experienced moderate to extreme stress over the first six weeks of the pandemic. Lack of physical activity with added stress from the pandemic likely had a compounding effect on people who are more physically active. In a state like Colorado, which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data found to have the highest rate of physically active people in the country, the compounding effects on mental health could be reflected on a higher percentage of the population. With 83.8% of Coloradians being physically active, compared to 69.1% of Mississippians, a larger percentage of the population is likely to have adverse mental health effects from stay-at-home orders.

infographic of how stress levels are up during pandemic

A larger portion of people in the most physically active states are likely to see a negative impact on mental health, but their physical activity has kept them from high-risk health conditions. Our analysis of CDC data comparing physical activity to obesity in each state shows a close correlation. States that are more physically active have lower rates of obesity. Obesity is also closely correlated with high-risk health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease that the CDC has indicated to be high-risk health factors for serious COVID-19 illness. These high-risk underlying health conditions closely correlated to obesity have the highest rates of hospitalization for COVID-19. Cardiovascular disease, hypertension and obesity all share the highest percentage, over 30%, of health conditions for COVID-19 hospitalizations. Colorado is the most physically active state and also the least obese. While the physically active in Colorado might see adverse mental health effects, they are a state with lower health risks for underlying conditions that cause serious risk of COVID-19 illness.

Methodology

We analyzed 2018 CDC BRFSS data to see which states reported more exercise. Rankings are based on states that reported the highest rate of regular exercise. We then paired each states exercise data with obesity rates in each state to show that a high rate of exercise in a given state correlates to lower obesity rates.

Rank State
% of residents who exercise
% of obese residents
1 Colorado 83.8 22.7
2 Hawaii 80.8 25.5
3 Vermont 82.4 27.1
4 Utah 82.3 28
5 Washington 82.9 28.4
6 California 79.2 25.6
7 Idaho 80 28
8 Massachusetts 78.3 25.3
9 Alaska 80.4 29.3
10 Montana 78.5 26.6
11 Oregon 81.5 29.6
12 Connecticut 78.3 26.8
13 Wyoming 79.2 28.7
14 New Hampshire 79.3 29.4
15 Minnesota 80.1 29.6
16 Arizona 78.6 29.5
17 Maine 79 30.1
18 Virginia 78.8 29.9
19 New York 76.7 27.3
20 Wisconsin 79 32.1
21 Rhode Island 75.5 27.3
22 New Jersey 72.3 25.1
23 South Dakota 77 29.5
24 Nevada 75.7 29.2
25 New Mexico 78.6 32.8
26 Pennsylvania 77 30.5
27 Maryland 77.6 30.6
28 Michigan 77.2 32.4
29 Illinois 76.1 31.3
30 North Carolina 76.9 32.5
31 Kansas 78.2 34.2
32 Nebraska 76.9 33.8
33 Florida 74.2 30.5
34 North Dakota 78.2 35.1
35 Ohio 75.7 33.6
36 Iowa 78 35.1
37 Georgia 74.1 32.1
38 Delaware 74.3 33
39 South Carolina 74.3 34
40 Texas 74.7 34.6
41 Missouri 74.9 34.9
42 Indiana 73.6 33.8
43 Oklahoma 73.7 34.8
44 Tennessee 70.5 34.1
45 West Virginia 74.1 39.5
46 Alabama 70.3 36.1
47 Arkansas 70.5 37.3
48 Kentucky 69.3 36.4
49 Louisiana 69.7 36.7
50 Mississippi 69.1 39.5