As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office in January, he is rightfully steering the bulk of his efforts toward the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite our internal battle against this relenting virus, global events continue to swirl around us and will test the new president and his administration. In order to meet those challenges, we need to ensure our military force is at its peak strength and that starts at the ground level with recruiting men and women who can withstand the physical rigor required of all branches of the armed services.

Unfortunately, there has been an alarming trend of young adults who fail to physically qualify for military service. In a study of 10 Southern states, the Citadel found that 27% of potential enlistees between the ages of 17 and 24 are too obese to qualify. Furthermore, an astounding 47% of men and 59% of women fail the entry-level training test required by the Army. Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander of U.S. Army Europe and member of then-President Barack Obama’s task force on physical fitness, weighed in on the broader impact of the results, noting the study “provides critical insight into the real national security issues posed by recruits who are less physically fit and less prepared for military service than they have ever been in our history.”

The importance of regular exercise as a health tool cannot be underestimated — whether you aspire to join the military or not. Exercise produces numerous physical and mental health benefits and as we learn more about COVID-19, it becomes even more important.

Research demonstrates that COVID-19 causes severe symptoms and a higher risk of being hospitalized for those who suffer from chronic conditions like obesity, hypertension and diabetes. With over 70% of Americans being considered overweight or obese, there was bound to be a devastating impact on the country. In addition to COVID-19’s threat to physical health and broad discussions about comorbidity, more than half of adults say that the pandemic negatively affects their mental health. It should.

Exercise can help alleviate these concerns. Regular physical activity, even less than the suggested 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, helps prevent chronic conditions, maintain healthy weight, boosts the immune system and reduces symptoms of stress and anxiety. And research confirms physical activity serves as a protective barrier against COVID-19.

For Americans — including potential military recruits — to avail themselves of these benefits, they need access to affordable fitness. This is where fitness centers across the country can play an important role by providing the safest environment possible so that everyone can continue improving their overall health. Not everyone can afford an at-home gym or will have the ability to exercise outdoors during the winter months, leaving a fitness center as the best option.

Fitness centers have made it clear they want to be a part of the solution and are committed to their members’ safety. Centers adjusted to operate at reduced capacity; members and employees practice social distancing; employees wear facemasks; equipment is frequently sanitized; and locker rooms are closed. In fact, a recent study by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association found that of Americans who returned to their fitness centers, nearly 90% were confident in the new safety precautions. Fitness centers also have large, spacious structures with ventilation systems able to circulate air regularly, critical to mitigating the risk of COVID-19 transmission indoors.

Our policymakers must take all of this into consideration as they make decisions affecting fitness centers. Indeed, Citadel Health, Exercise, and Sport Science professor Dr. Daniel Bornstein, who led the study, encouraged states to implement policies that support a physically active lifestyle, stating, “If such actions were taken, physical fitness levels among residents of these states would rise and each state’s disproportionate burden on military readiness and public health could be minimized.”

Access to fitness centers is not only important for America’s physical and mental health, but for our national security. Our armed forces are already struggling with recruitment and we cannot afford to lose current potential recruits over lack of physical readiness. The COVID-19 pandemic and global challenges will continue into 2021 — America needs to be ready for both.

James “Spider” Marks, a retired U.S. Army major general, is advising fitness centers to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19.

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