While many people go to gyms to improve their fitness, many of these facilities are undermining public health warnings regarding indoor tanning, according to new findings.
Published in JAMA Network Open (Dec. 20, 2019; 2(12):e1918058), the research was inspired by a seemingly paradoxical observation, said lead author Sherry Pagoto, PhD, in a press release from the University of Connecticut (UConn).
“An interesting study was published a few years ago (JAMA Internal Medicine, June 2016; 176(6):816-825) that found an association between physical activity and increased risk for melanoma,” said Dr. Pagoto, a professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences and director of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media. “Exercise is typically associated with reduced risk for cancer, so it was surprising to see an association with increased risk for melanoma. Around the same time we began to notice some of the large gym chains offering tanning beds. This got us wondering just how many gyms are offering tanning beds and about the implications of marketing tanning beds to physically active people who we now know are at increased risk for melanoma.”
To answer their question, the research team sampled all locations of three of the six largest U.S. national gym chains—Anytime Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and Planet Fitness—in 33 states and Washington, D.C. The gyms were contacted by telephone to see if they offered tanning, and if so how many tanning beds they made available.
Of 1,927 gyms identified, 1,727 responded to the survey questions.
More than 78% of the gyms reached had tanning beds—a total of 4,660 beds. Planet Fitness provided more tanning beds than the other gyms, followed by Anytime Fitness and then Gold’s Gym. When sorting the gyms into five geographic regions—Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West—the Midwest region had the highest proportion of tanning beds in the sampled gyms when compared to the other four regions in the country, at 87%.
“Gyms appear to be the new tanning salons,” Dr. Pagoto said. “This is surprising because our sense had been that the tanning industry was on the decline. However, it appears that the industry is just moving tanning beds into novel environments—with gyms being the most common.”
“Because people associate gyms with health, gyms are essentially putting a ‘health halo’ on tanning beds. The public health community has been trying to communicate the message to the public that tanning beds are not safe or healthy, but gyms with tanning beds are obstructing that message.”
Two other major gym chains in the U.S.—LA Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness—do not offer tanning at all, Dr. Pagoto said.
“The good news is that there are gym chains that do not include tanning beds in their business model, and so consumers have a choice,” she said. “I just have to question the motivation of any gym that uses a carcinogen to lure members. Is their priority really my health? Regardless of whether a consumer uses tanning beds, they should take pause when considering their choice of gym.”