Recently, I spent some time at the Technical Meeting of the American Sports Builders Association. It's the annual convention for those who design, build and supply materials for sports and fitness facilities. Of course, one of the points we kept returning to was this: How do we move the needle? How do we stimulate the fitness industry's economy so that Americans increase their pursuit of healthy activities and keep up the demand for good facilities?
It was Mike May, spokesperson for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, who spoke up about a piece of legislation everyone should be getting behind: the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT, pronounced "fit") Act of 2011 (H.R. 2649). The PHIT Act would change current federal tax law to allow for the deduction or use of pre-tax dollars to cover expenses related to sports, fitness and other physical activities. The concept is simple: With the passage of the PHIT Act, Americans could invest up to $2,000 annually to pay for physical activities by investing money in existing pre-tax Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), Medical Savings Accounts (MSA) and/or medical reimbursement arrangements.
Right now, these accounts are set up to provide reimbursement for things like prescriptions and doctor's appointments when we're sick - in other words, reactive care. There's no provision for preventive care. (Is it any wonder that IHRSA reports that more than $76.6 billion on healthcare costs are directly associated with inactivity? There's no monetary reward system for people who buck the trend.)
PHIT would only expand the expenses eligible for reimbursement to include physical activity costs as a form of prevention; PHIT would not increase contribution limits to these accounts. Once an individual or family spends 7.5 percent of their income on qualified medical expenses, they could deduct physical activity expenses directly. What qualifies as physical activity costs? Things like health club memberships, youth sports programs, home exercise equipment and other fees associated with programs of physical activity.
How simple and brilliant is this? One of the excuses people often give for remaining inactive is "I can't afford gym dues." PHIT, if passed, could help people overcome this hurdle.
If you're cynical, I suppose you're thinking that it just means those people will develop another excuse, and maybe you're right. For people who just plain don't want to exercise or diet, there will always be another obstacle, another excuse, another attempt to justify a sedentary lifestyle. But for those who genuinely want to get on the path to good health, PHIT can be a fantastic first step.
Mike May was urging conference attendees to support the PHIT Act by calling, writing or e-mailing their elected officials. For those who never get around to doing such things because they don't know how, I direct your attention to USA.Gov: It's free and it's (as the site promises) "Government Made Easy." Find your state, find your elected officials and shoot 'em your e-mails. There. Another excuse down the drain.